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Oklahoma Tries A New Execution Method: Nitrogen Gas


The state of Oklahoma has announced it will now use nitrogen gas to execute prisoners who've been sentenced to death. The state hasn't carried out an execution in more than three years, and the last two executions were mishandled. The prisoners died, but suffered prolonged pain. State officials hope nitrogen will provide a more humane method. But first, they need to figure out how to use it.

Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno joins us. Professor, thanks very much for being with us.


SIMON: You're an expert on methods of execution. What should we know? What do you know about nitrogen gas?

DENNO: Well, I know very little, and I don't think anybody knows all that much either. It was adopted by Oklahoma with very little knowledge about it. It was - there weren't physicians who were involved in recommending the process or in doing - having anything to do with having it adopted. And it was basically came up with by two criminologists and a political science professor.

SIMON: How did they test it without really testing it?

DENNO: They said that they didn't. They wrote a report just summarizing how it's been used with animals, how people have died in a cockpit or something like that.

SIMON: I gather nitrogen is used in assisted suicides for terminally ill people where that is legal.

DENNO: Yes. I mean, it has been - I'm aware of Jack Kevorkian using it, and it's been promoted in some assisted suicide books.

SIMON: Many pharmaceutical companies, of course, no longer will sell states the drugs for lethal injections. Is that what prompted this change?

DENNO: It was one of the factors that prompted this change, in addition to the fact that the FDA won't allow states to import untested drugs. So states couldn't go outside of the country to get them anymore, and that was a factor as well.

SIMON: Does this have to be worked out legally, ethically, medically?

DENNO: Absolutely. Attorneys have to know how their clients are going to die. It's never just about the drug or the device. It's who's administering it. How is it going to be administered? You know, where is this going to take place? They haven't specified anything.

SIMON: Professor Denno, is there such a thing as a humane method of execution?

DENNO: I think firing squad is the most humane that we have on the books in this country. We do know that it's - heart death happens very quickly. There's relatively less pain. And the irony is the most humane method of execution we have on the books is considered the most barbaric by other people, even though this has been the most widely used method of execution across the world.

SIMON: I also think a lot of people wonder - so many beloved pets are put down, to use that euphemism, every year. Why is it not possible to figure out, for those states that insist on having the death penalty, some way of administering death that - well, it's hard for me to finish that sentence.

DENNO: Yes. I mean, I can see why it would be hard for you to finish it. I mean, again, another irony is that we have many people recommending and highly involved in how we euthanize animals because this is something the country takes so seriously.

We don't, in any way, have such overview or such professional involvement when we start talking about the execution of human beings. So the paralytic that we use - still use to this day on human beings in most death penalty states you are unable to use on an animal. You cannot do that. So it's actually more humane to execute an animal than it is for human beings.

SIMON: Deborah Denno is the Arthur A. McGivney Professor of Law at Fordham University. Thanks so much.

DENNO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.