Oklahoma is set to become the first state to execute inmates using nitrogen gas, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announced Wednesday, and one inmate on the state’s death row said he would welcome the method over lethal injection, a process the state has consistently bungled since 2014.
“Personally as a human being it would be nice to go to sleep and close your eyes and forget your name,” said Phillip Hancock, who was sentenced to death in 2004 for a double homicide three years prior.
“That’s better than having some idiot trying to find a vein, when they’re just stabbing you in your bone for an hour,” Hancock said from his prison cell at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma, referring to the 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett.
Lockett’s 43-minute execution was largely unwitnessed by the media, because prison staff lowered the blinds after he began mumbling and convulsing several minutes into the process. A state investigation later concluded a lack of equipment and training led to an improperly placed IV, allowing the lethal drugs to pool in Lockett’s muscle tissue. He eventually died of a heart attack.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh said his agency is working to fully develop and implement a new execution protocol making nitrogen hypoxia the preferred method, although the details of how it would be administered have not been finalized.
Both in a 2014 interim study at the state Capitol and at Wednesday’s press conference, state officials have implied the method could be delivered through a bag pulled over the inmate’s head. Nitrogen gas would slowly replace oxygen in the bag, causing the inmate to lose consciousness and eventually die.
If Oklahoma does carry out an execution using nitrogen gas, it wouldn’t be the first time the state has set precedent with capital punishment. The lethal injection method commonly used for decades was first developed in Oklahoma by the state’s medical examiner.
Officials with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office have had trouble locating the preferred drugs used until now in its lethal injections. The companies and compounding pharmacies that manufacture those drugs have largely halted providing them for capital punishment, citing both moral reasons and mounting public pressure.
“I was calling all around the world, to the back streets of the Indian sub-continent,” Allbaugh said Wednesday at a joint press conference with Hunter, the Associated Press reported.
“We can no longer sit on the sidelines and wait on the drugs,” Hunter added.
While Oklahoma had been one of the country’s leading death penalty states for decades, it has not carried out an execution since January 2015—its longest gap since the mid-1990s. Lockett’s execution was the first of several problems that would plague Oklahoma and eventually lead to the current hiatus.
“Take yourself back to Clayton Lockett, and you had no idea what was going on on the other side of that curtain,” Hancock said. “They were committing an absolute brutality on that person.
“They look at me and call me a savage, right back at you. Don’t think that by killing me you’re going to put an end to violence in the world.”
The year following Lockett’s execution saw a string of mishaps in Oklahoma’s administering of the death penalty. The state executed Charles Frederick Warner using a drug it was not authorized to use under state protocol. The next man scheduled to die, Richard Eugene Glossip, saw his execution halted several times, once because the wrong drug was again delivered to the state penitentiary. A state court then ordered a re-evaluation of the Oklahoma’s execution protocol and training, and then-Attorney General Scott Pruitt said his office would not seek new execution dates until 150 days after that new protocol had been adopted.
In 2016, Allbaugh expressed doubt in the use of inert gases to execute inmates, saying he favored firing squads, the third method allowed in the state constitution.
“There is no evidence that nitrogen hypoxia would work,” he told KOCO.
The process has to proceed slowly and with caution, and the Department of Corrections should be completely transparent as it studies this method and develops the new protocol, said Federal Public Defender Dale Baich, who represents other Oklahoma death row inmates challenging Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol in federal court.
“This method has never been used before and is experimental,” Baich said. “Oklahoma is once again asking us to trust it as officials learn on the job through a new execution procedure and method.”
Medical experts have routinely declined to comment on the efficacy of nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, citing their oath to protect life and with many also disparaging the use of what they see as a human experiment.
While Hancock believes nitrogen hypoxia is a better method than lethal injections, Oklahoma’s troubled past with executions leaves him remaining uneasy about being put to death with an untested method. At his trial and in the years since, Hancock has maintained the murders he was convicted for happened as a result of self-defence.
“I don’t mind dying. This is a given. I know I’m going to die. I would give my life to protect my loved ones and my tribe,” Hancock said. “But I don’t want to die in this place, and I don’t want these cowards to kill me. I can’t stand that.”