A lawsuit challenging Alabama’s lethal injection practice is expected to be dismissed after eight death row inmates on Tuesday asked to be killed by the nitrogen gas in the place.
Alabama is the third state for the execution of prisoners by nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative to the three-drug cocktail in its lethal injections.
The case was originally filed in 2012 by several death row inmates. Lawyers said the inmates’ claims challenging the status of the lethal injection process as inhumane are important now.
Alabama had previously performed executions by electrocution or lethal injection.
In March, Alabama added death by nitrogen to the list.
Nitrogen makes up about 78% of the air that people breathe. It is colorless, odorless and tasteless. Breathing in pure nitrogen causes oxygen in the bloodstream.
“Placed in a pure nitrogen environment, the prisoner would be unconscious within a minute (maybe even after a breath or two), and would be dead shortly after,” Charles Blanke, a medical oncologist and professor of medicine at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine, said. “The failure rate, that is, in cases where the prisoner survives, it will probably be much lower than what we see with the current death penalty methods.”
There is no scientific data about the execution of people with nitrogen gas, and some experts worry that using the tested method can cause more problems.
“If prisons forced prisoners to wear a tight fitting mask, would this increase the feeling of suffocation? Would they still leak? Or, would an entire room must be filled with pure nitrogen? Would accidental dilution with oxygen-containing air in the space (mask or chamber) to slow down or even prevent the death, leaving the inmates in comas or brain damaged?” White asked.
Although legal, no state has made use of the method, but still.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said it may take some time before the inmates see a death chamber with nitrogen.
“At least the prisoners who have opted for the nitrogen gas over lethal injection, there is no executions until Alabama has an approved nitrogen gas protocol. It will take time for that to happen and, because the gas protocol will also be untried, it will face its own set of legal challenges,” Dunham said.
Dunham added the eight Alabama inmates can also “prefer the unknown risks of nitrogen hypoxia to the well-known risks” of the lethal injection drugs, while Alabama need to litigate the lethal injection issue, by the voluntary dismissal of the case.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.