State officials have been working to replace lethal injection with nitrogen gas now going on four years. As time has gone on and inmates continue to wait questions are mounting about the process and whether Oklahoma will even have another execution.
Oklahoma has been working to start using nitrogen hypoxia, the process of replacing oxygen with nitrogen until an inmate dies. Executions have been on an indefinite hold since 2015 following the problematic executions of Clayton Lockett, Charles Warner and Richard Glossip, which became national news and a statewide embarrassment.
The executions of Lockett and Warner, while completed, are generally considered to have been botched. Lockett writhed in the execution chair for nearly 45 minutes, moaning and straining against his restraints. Warner could be heard saying his body felt as if it were on fire. It was later discovered the wrong drug was used as a part of the lethal three-drug cocktail to execute Warner.
Glossip, who was sent to the execution chamber three times, has been waiting to be put to death after the state discovered the same incorrect drug was about to be used in his execution. At the time Gov. Mary Fallin’s then attorney Steve Mullin told Fallin she should move forward with the execution to avoid the exposure of problems with Warner’s execution.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesman Matt Elliot says the DOC is still working with the Attorney General's office to write the new hypoxia protocol saying "That process is ongoing. We will update the public once it is complete..."
Supporters of the new method say it's more humane than previous methods of execution, akin to falling asleep and used by prominent self-euthanasia groups nationwide which promote it as a painless process of death.
Opponents, point to warnings from national veterinary associations which advise against killing animals this way and that nitrogen use is still experimental, not used officially anywhere in the world. Oklahoma is the only state to make hypoxia the primary method. Alabama and Mississippi both have it listed as an alternative but none of the three states has a working protocol.
There are also still many unknowns to using nitrogen, including how the state will administer the gas. Some methods suggest building a chamber in which gas is exchanged or by using a "death mask," likely like those used in hypoxia training for pilots.
Then there's whether it's effective or can be repeated exactly. When done in training, the Federal Aviation Administration warns symptoms can differ widely; generally, not something seen as a positive in a process meant to be done with accuracy.
“The rate of individual onset will vary day-to-day due to other physiological or psychological stressor,” a narrator can be heard saying during an FAA training video about hypoxia.
“Oklahoma kind of acted first and thought second when it came to nitrogen hypoxia,” said Robert Dunham.
Dunham is the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-partisan group focused on executions. He said lawmakers' rush to have a new method in place and lack of evidence it will work could mean Oklahoma will remain without the death penalty for quite a while.
“The issue just zipped through the legislature without any scientific examination. So, the question is, is it going to work? Is it something that's going to be acceptable for killing human beings and nobody really has the answer to that,” Dunham said.
Support of the death penalty using any method has been on the decline both nationwide and in Oklahoma for several years. Support in Oklahoma officially dropped below 50 percent in 2016. Likewise, Dunham said the use of the death penalty as a sentence has waned.
Both Attorney General Mike Hunter and Governor-Elect Kevin Stitt have said despite concerns of efficacy and a decline in public support they plan to continue to move forward with executions in Oklahoma once the protocol is finished.