The Sacramento Bee publishes an OpEd, "DAs push for return of the gas chamber," by Scott Christianson, a former New York state criminal justice official. He's also the author of The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber.
State lawmakers are scheduled to conduct a public hearing Tuesday on legislation to overhaul California's dysfunctional system for carrying out legal executions. Much of the proposal is old news, but there is one as-yet unnoticed feature that merits close attention.
California's district attorneys want to bring back the gas chamber. Really. While the plan stands little chance of passage, it reveals just how desperate and out of touch the pro-capital punishment forces have become.
Since 1967, despite spending many hundreds of millions of dollars on the death penalty, California has put to death a grand total of 13 people – two by a procedure of lethal gas that was struck down by the federal courts in the 1990s and the last 11 by a protocol of lethal injection that remains stymied in the courts. Not surprisingly, public opinion has been turning against capital punishment: Last November 48 percent of the electorate voted for Proposition 34, which would have ended the practice.
The use of nitrogen for execution purposes was first suggested in a brief article that appeared in a conservative magazine in September 1995. In it, Stuart A. Creque, a Bay Area freelance writer, called nitrogen asphyxiation a "perfect method of execution," saying nitrogen is "cheap and universally available" material that requires no special safety precautions, and claiming that it would cause painless death without any trauma or damage to human organs.
In 2011 this method was further recommended by Kent Scheidegger, the legal director of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law organization that often collaborates with prosecutors to champion the most punitive responses to crime.
In his blog, Scheidegger stated, "The problem with the gas chamber was not the method but the choice of gas." He advocated the use of helium or nitrogen.
"I do not need reports or studies to know that hypoxia is painless," he wrote. All that is necessary, he said, "is retrofit the gas chamber to flush it with helium or nitrogen."
How many appellate judges, scientists or engineers would agree with either of those facile assertions? California law prohibits gassing for euthanasia of dogs or cats. Veterinarians considered it too cruel. But using it on humans would be OK?