Using nitrogen gas to cut off a death row inmate’s oxygen supply would be a practical, humane, and virtually foolproof way for the state to administer the death penalty, a criminology professor told members of a legislative committee Tuesday.

Michael Copeland, an assistant professor at East Central University in Ada, testified before the House Judiciary Committee about research that he and two colleagues conducted at the request of a Republican state lawmaker who wants Oklahoma to replace lethal injection as a method of execution.

Among Copeland’s findings were that nitrogen gas would be easy to obtain and could be administered even to an uncooperative inmate without the need for a medical professional.

Unlike traditional gas chamber methods, including the use of cyanide gas, and unlike someone being smothered, which both cause a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood, Copeland said breathing nitrogen leads to hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen in the blood, and would be painless.

“That’s an important distinction,” Copeland said.

State Rep. Mike Christian, a former highway patrolman and staunch supporter of the death penalty who requested the legislative study, said lethal injection is becoming more problematic in the United States because of the increasing scarcity of the drugs typically used in the procedure, due mostly to European manufacturers’ hesitancy to supply the chemicals for use in executions.

As a result, Christian said, states must experiment with new drug combinations that could end up being challenged in court. He also cited Oklahoma’s April 29 lethal injection of Clayton Lockett, who writhed on the gurney, clenched his teeth and mumbled for several minutes before being pronounced dead more than 40 minutes after the procedure began. An investigation by the state Department of Public Safety released earlier this month blamed the problems on the poor placement of an intravenous line, and state prison officials are developing new lethal injection protocols.

“After visiting with my friends at (East Central University) … we think we’ve found a solution,” said Christian, R-Oklahoma City, who said he plans to draft a bill before the start of the 2015 legislative session

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, who has successfully sought the death penalty against several convicted killers, told members of the committee that if a law were passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor, even inmates already sentenced to death could be executed using the new method.

A spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin declined to comment on the use of nitrogen gas to execute inmates.

“The governor’s focus now is on ensuring the DPS recommendations are implemented properly,” said Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz. “It’s too early in the legislative process for the governor to comment on a bill that may be filed in the future.”

Some opponents of the death penalty questioned whether the topic was worthy of discussion by the Legislature.

“I think it’s a fool’s errand to try and find a humane way to deliberately take the life of another person against their will,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Oklahoma was the first state to adopt lethal injection as a method of execution in 1977, replacing the electric chair. The vast majority of states now use lethal injection as the primary method of carrying out executions, though some besides Oklahoma are giving the issue another look.

Tennessee earlier this year passed a law allowing the use of the electric chair if drugs for lethal injection are not available, and lawmakers in Utah and Wyoming have discussed the possibility of returning to the use of firing squads.


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