Inmates sign off on death by gas

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Some say inhaling nitrogen gas would be like dying on a plane that depressurizes in flight, swiftly killing all aboard. Now more than a quarter of Alabama’s death row inmates have signed statements saying they would prefer that gas over lethal injection or the electric chair when facing execution.

No inmate in the U.S. has been put to death with nitrogen gas before, and critics suspect at least some inmates are simply hoping to delay a date with the death chamber through the inevitable legal challenges ahead.

State corrections officials say 51 of Alabama’s 180 inmates have chosen nitrogen hypoxia, allowed a choice after Alabama lawmakers voted this year to authorize that alternative execution method. With difficulties obtaining execution drugs and litigation arising over claims of botched and horribly painful chemical injections this decade, Alabama joins Oklahoma and Mississippi in exploring the potential alternative.

John Palombi, an attorney with the Federal Defenders Program, said his group advised inmates to request the uncertainties of nitrogen gas over what he called the known “torture” of Alabama’s three-drug cocktail.

Bob Horton of the Alabama Department of Corrections gave no time estimate for when the alternative method would be ready. But the spokesman assured in an email that the department “will have a protocol in place before the state carries out executions by nitrogen.”

Republican state Sen. Trip Pittman, sponsor of Alabama’s legislation, believes nitrogen will prove more humane. He spoke of how aircraft passengers have passed out and died from a sudden plane depressurization. “The person will pass out and ultimately pass,” said Pittman.