Arizona secretly renovated its gas chamber as it plans to execute death row inmates using the same pesticide the Nazis used to kill 865,000 Jews in Auschwitz.
Records show that the state began restoring the chamber at the state prison in Florence, southeast of Phoenix, last year while purchasing the materials needed to manufacture lethal hydrogen cyanide gas.
No one has been executed by a gas chamber in Arizona — or across the country — in more than two decades, when convicted murderer Walter LaGrand was executed on state premises in 1999.
LaGrand took 18 minutes to die, tied to a chair choking and trying to breathe.
His agonizing death generated outrage and ended the method of execution across the country.
Prison officials declined to say why they are restarting the gas chamber now.
However, the move comes at a time when the execution rate has dropped to near-record levels across America amid controversy over the suffering caused by lethal injection drugs and the death penalty in general.
Pharmaceutical giants refuse to provide lethal injectable drugs for ethical reasons, and states are left with a limited offer to kill prisoners.
Arizona secretly renovated its gas chamber as it plans to execute death row inmates using the same pesticide the Nazis used to kill 865,000 Jews in Auschwitz. Florence state prison, where the gas chamber was renovated
The gas chamber inside the “House of Death” in the Florence prison complex. Records show that the state began restoring the chamber last year, while purchasing the materials needed to manufacture the lethal hydrogen cyanide gas.
Arizona state authorities spent more than $2,000 on ingredients to make the deadly gas, including a potassium cyanide brick, sodium hydroxide pellets and sulfuric acid to produce cyanide gas in December, records show.
Rubber seals on hatch door and chamber windows were replaced, rust was removed from surfaces, and chamber levers were lubricated.
An exhaust in the chemical mixing room was repaired and a smoke grenade was fired to ensure the fan and a vent were working, according to records.
The chamber, dubbed the “House of Death,” was also tested for sealing by lighting a candle near the door and windows.
Arizona is one of four states with decades-old gas chamber laws still in effect.
Prison officials said legal and constitutional requirements mean that prisoners on death row can opt for the gas chamber if they are convicted of crimes that occurred before Arizona adopted the lethal injection in 1992.
Currently, 17 of 115 death row inmates in the state meet these criteria.
It is not clear whether any of them expressed a preference for the method.
The state penitentiary department said in a statement that it is “prepared to fulfill its constitutional obligations, comply with court orders and bring justice to the victims’ families.”
Lawyers who practice death penalty law in Arizona say their enforcement protocol did not contain provisions for carrying out 2007 gas chamber executions until the policies were changed this year.
Dale Baich, head of the Federal Public Defender’s Unit that represents Arizona prisoners in death penalty appeals, said he believes the state wants the gas chamber to function if any of the 17 eligible death row inmates select it.
“My guess is that since there are 17 people, the department wants to be ready,” said Baich.
Arizona prosecutors have signaled they want to resume executions after a seven-year hiatus with two prisoners – Frank Atwood (right) and Clarence Dixon (left)
Republican Governor Doug Ducey’s office defended the state’s preparations to resume gas chamber executions.
‘Gov. Ducey is following the law as set out in the Arizona constitution,’ said spokesman C.J. Karamargin.
‘The victims have been waiting a long time for justice in many of these cases.’
But the measure was condemned internationally, including coverage in Israel and Germany drawing parallels to the atrocities of the Holocaust.
The American Jewish Committee wrote in a statement: ‘Whether or not one supports the death penalty as a general matter, there is a general consensus in American society that a gas designed as a pesticide and used to eliminate Jews has no place in the administration of justice criminal. ‘
The last prisoner to be executed in a US gas chamber was LaGrand, the second of two German brothers sentenced to death for killing a bank manager in 1982 in southern Arizona.
Both brothers chose the gas chamber in hopes that the courts would find the method unconstitutional.
Walter LaGrand addresses the Arizona Executive Clemency Council at Florence State Prison in 1999. He was executed in the gas chamber the next day, becoming the last person in Arizona and the United States to be executed by gas chamber
Walter and Karl LaGrand (left and right in mugs) were sentenced to death for killing a bank manager in 1982 in southern Arizona
While Karl LaGrand accepted the state’s last-minute offer of lethal injection, Walter LaGrand rejected it, saying he preferred a more painful execution to protest the death penalty.
The case drew widespread criticism in Germany, which does not have the death penalty, and sparked repeated diplomatic protests.
This week, Jim Belinger gave a horrible report in AZCentral of witnessing his client Don Harding being sentenced to death inside the Arizona gas chamber in 1992.
Belinger described how Harding was ‘nearly stripped naked, wearing only white diaper-like underwear’.
When the gas was turned on, he said, he watched Harding spend at least eight minutes ‘writhing in agony’, his face twitching, his body convulsing and his head bobbing ‘back and forth’.
Don’s body began to convulse violently and his arms tightened against the straps. His face and body became deeply red and the veins in his temple and neck began to swell until I thought they were going to burst,’ he wrote.
– Every few seconds, he gulped for breath. He was shaking uncontrollably and his body was racked with spasms. Her head continued to rock back and forth. His hands were clenched tightly together. ‘
This week, Jim Belinger made a gruesome report on A ZCentral witnessing his client Don Harding (pictured right) being executed in the Arizona gas chamber in 1992. He said he saw Harding spend at least eight minutes “writhing in agony” with the face contorting
Harding took 10 minutes and 31 seconds to die.
‘I’ll never forget the expression on his face when he turned to me right after inhaling the fumes. It is an image of atrocity that will haunt me for the rest of my life,’ wrote Belinger.
Arizona prosecutors signaled two months ago that they would restart executions after a seven-year hiatus, with two prisoners – Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon – at the top of the list.
Both were convicted of crimes before 1992 and could opt for the gas chamber or lethal injection.
Dixon was sentenced to death for the 1978 murder of 21-year-old Deana Bowdoin in Maricopa County.
Atwood received the death penalty in 1984 for the murder of 8-year-old Vicki Lynn Hoskinson, whose body was found in the desert outside Tucson.
Executions were suspended in Arizona after the death of Joseph Wood in 2014, who was executed by lethal injection.
Wood gasped for air and snorted as he received 15 doses of a two-drug combination in two hours.
The gas chamber in Arizona. Prison officials declined to say why they are restarting the gas chamber now. However, the shift comes at a time when the execution rate has dropped to near-record levels across America amid a shortage of lethal injectable drugs.
He had been sentenced to death for the 1989 shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend, Debra Dietz, and her father, Eugene Dietz, in Tucson.
Executions of any kind have declined in both the Republican state and other states where the death penalty still exists amid a shortage of powerful barbiturates – the lethal injectable drugs.
Some states are finding ways around this with South Carolina passing a law last month that forces death row inmates to choose between the electric chair or a newly formed firing squad.
Arizona has also struggled to find drug suppliers, but revealed this spring that it had obtained a shipment of pentobarbital.
The move to reopen the gas chamber appears to be another attempt by the state to resume executions of prisoners.
The horrific nature of gas chamber deaths and the advent of executions by lethal injection have turned the United States against lethal gas, said Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School who has studied executions for more than 25 years.
Historical accounts of gas chamber executions portray prisoners gasping, thumping their restrained bodies and appearing to be in excruciating pain.
A convicted man in Mississippi repeatedly hit his head against a steel pole during his 1983 execution.
In The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber, writer Scott Christianson said 594 people died in lethal gas executions across the United States from 1924 to 1999.
Although some believe the Nazis invented the gas chamber, the first one made for executions was built in Nevada and first used in 1924, Christianson wrote.
The Nazis used the same gas that Arizona is producing to kill 865,000 Jews in Auschwitz (above)
Auschwitz survivors behind a barbed wire fence in Poland in February 1945
The chamber was a by-product of chemical warfare research done by the US Army and the chemical industry during World War I
The Third Reich later expanded its use on an industrial level to kill millions, he wrote.
‘Even after Auschwitz, it still took more than 50 years for gas chamber executions to cease in the United States,’ wrote Christianson in his 2010 book.
Lethal gas enforcement laws remain in effect in Arizona, California, Missouri and Wyoming.
In recent years, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama have passed laws that allow nitrogen gas executions, at least in some circumstances, though experts say this has never been done and no state has established a protocol that would allow it.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which has criticized the way executions are carried out in the United States, said Arizona authorities should have recognized the implications gas chambers carry, given their use by the Nazis. from Zyklon B, a pesticide whose lethal component is hydrogen cyanide gas.
“You have to wonder what they were thinking to seriously believe that executing a prisoner with cyanide gas is morally acceptable in 2021,” Dunham said.