OKLAHOMA CITY — The state could implement a new experimental method of executing its inmates that would be more “humane” and less painful than the current lethal injection method used, an East Central University analysis found.
Implementing nitrogen hypoxia, or gradually cutting off an inmate’s oxygen, would be a simple, effective and painless way to perform executions, East Central University assistant professor Michael Copeland told a panel of lawmakers Tuesday morning during an interim study at the state’s Capitol.
Though inmates might convulse following unconsciousness through hypoxia because “the central nervous system dies at a different rate than the brain dies,” Copeland said there is no evidence that a person suffers pain during those final twitches.
“It would be quick and painless,” Copeland said, noting that the gas is odorless, colorless, tasteless and inert as well as easy to come-by unlike some drugs currently used in lethal injections. He noted that death from hypoxia would likely occur within five minutes. He said the method is not like smothering someone.
Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, said he requested the study following the clumsy April 29 execution of 38-year-old Clayton Lockett in which it took him more than 40 minutes to die from the state’s three-drug lethal injection cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. A probe ultimately found that the IV administering the drug through Lockett’s groin came loose, prolonging the death.
Christian said he initially was going to suggest the state switch to execution by firing squad, but now believes that nitrogen hypoxia would be a more practical, efficient, humane and innovative way to “put these folks down that are on death row.”
Copeland said no other states or countries have used nitrogen hypoxia in executions so his team had to rely on literature review and experiences reported by pilots suffering from oxygen deprivation to reach its conclusions. No medical professionals would agree to assist in the analysis because of ethical concerns that could affect their licensing, he added.
Retired Coast Guard Commander Robert Wolfard of Norman flew planes in World War II for the Navy and was exposed to nitrogen hypoxia as part of his training. He said he experienced no symptoms before or after losing consciousness.
“I was awake, then I wasn’t,” he told lawmakers.
The study also relied in part on YouTube videos of children sucking too much helium from balloons and then passing out from a lack of oxygen to illustrate what hypoxia is like. Like sucking helium from a balloon, Copeland said a person would first feel lightheaded and then suddenly pass out without pain. He said children die each year from breathing gas out of balloons because of a shortage of oxygen.
Lawmakers also showed a British Broadcasting Corporation video called “How To Kill A Human Being” that tested various methods of execution — including hanging, gassing and using an electric chair — before declaring nitrogen hypoxia as the most humane execution method. The reporter who tested the method said he had no clue his brain was shutting down.
The United Kingdom has abolished capital punishment.
Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, said officials have previously considered the possibility of using nitrogen hypoxia, but it has failed because some Oklahomans perceive it to be a “non-vengeful” method of execution.
Janelle Stecklein is Oklahoma state reporter for CNHI.