Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Proposal for More Humane Executions

A short story from my Scribner Seminar, a thought experiment

To: The Office of the Governor of the State of Virginia
From: Office of the Assistant Attorney General
Subject: Proposal for More Humane Execution Technology

It has recently come to my attention here at the office that there may be a sudden change in our methods of executing prisoners on death row pending the ruling of the Supreme Court. Whether or not I agree with the decision to outlaw lethal injection, if that be their decision, is of no concern because there has been the need for a reform of our current methods anyway. The goal of the new methods will of course have to be concurrent with the 8th amendment as well as Sections 11 and 15 of our state constitution. As a matter of public preference and peace of mind for all involved in the process, the methods must retain the utmost humaneness as well as conforming to budget constraints and feasibility. Through extensive research and consultations with experts and actual executioners it has become obvious that the most effective of these methods is the use of poisonous gas.

There is a severe stigma over poisonous gas or the gas chamber as it’s commonly called, but once we can get past its obviously bad history in light of the holocaust the gas chamber is efficient, effective, and, if used properly, humane.

First let’s address efficiency. Considering the number on death row and the already massive cost induced by constant appeals, we as a state need to reduce the cost at least on the far end where all resources are exhausted and actual execution can commence. The use of poisonous gas can be broken down to a fifteen minute process and can be done at almost any time at a moment’s notice. All that is needed is the transportation of the prisoner to the cell, the release of the gas, and the oversight of the doctors. It is that simple. The gas itself need not even be a chamber per se.

If in fact, legislation will allow it, we could easily improvise using our old lethal injection equipment or old strap-downs from the electric chair to secure prisoners down. Then we can have a reverse gas mask of sorts where hosing is installed from the mask to the source of the gas. This usage would dramatically reduce the amount of gas necessary to carry out the removal of said inmate.

Or, if costs are prohibitive in the sense that there are too many people involved in the process we could easily fashion an air tight Plexiglas enclosure that the prisoner steps into and he/she could comfortably sit down or lie down in. Instead of the barbaric leather straps we could just walk the inmate into the cell, release their shackles etc. and allow them to choose how they would like to die. Giving a prisoner the option to sit or stand or do however they please is probably the easiest way to keep abolitionists at least partially off of our backs and out of the media. With a thick Plexiglas enclosure, there would be ample viewing space for overseers while also providing protection from the gas itself. Previous models of usage for these enclosures were built before the widespread use of plastics and so lacked the cleanliness and safety that these items now assure; although to be clear, there has never been a mishap with gas where witnesses became unwitting victims.

In order to also assure the safety of the witnesses, a ducting and ventilation system separate from the rest of the complex will be rigged to the chamber. The system will have a vent and industrial fan to vent the gas immediately. As you will see this is not a hazard. After the actual administration of the gas, clearing it out could take as little as thirty seconds. Once the air is cleared and the gas has been cut it is simply a matter of removing the body and giving it to the family of the deceased. The whole process is very scientific, and fast.

When the inmate is actually in the process of death, wireless heart monitors as well as other necessary equipment will be attached to the prisoner to prevent any botched executions. Most if not all of this equipment can be stripped off of old injection equipment and applied to the new methods.

It is unequivocally clear that the process is fast, efficient, cost-effective, and safe. It may not be humane though, and that is because the gas used could be quite painful. I don’t think I really need to remind you of the terrible war stories of mustard gas or the systematic destruction of people by the Nazis. It can be humane though, and not just humane but truly painless. No other method has that claim. It is all in the chemicals used. The method that I strongly recommend is nitrogen gas.

Pure nitrogen gas would cause the inmate to suffocate without feeling the effects of suffocation. The feeling of suffocation is caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide in the brain according to Steven A. Creque and multiple other experts. The use of pure nitrogen prevents the buildup of carbon dioxide in the body and thus makes asphyxiation painless. That makes this method proven. Whether through the use of a modified gas mask or a chamber, nitrogen can be routed into the device and in a matter of moments pure nitrogen will be flowing and the body will not receive any oxygen, effectively killing cell functions and starving the brain. All of these effects though go completely unnoticed by the inmate, because nitrogen composes about 80% of our atmosphere it is breathed by humans every time they inhale. That means that we cannot taste it, smell it, or even detect it. It is regularly in our body all the time, and because of that the body does not notice it and continues to breathe as normal reducing with each breath the amount of oxygen in the body.

The strongest evidence for nitrogen execution actually comes from NASA where two technicians accidentally asphyxiated and killed themselves without knowing it by wandering into a tank filled with pure nitrogen. By the time that anyone realized the situation the two technicians were already deceased. There is other odd anecdotal evidence to say with certainty that nitrogen is effective and painless.

As for the matter of cost, nitrogen, because it composes 80% of our atmosphere is relatively easy and available. The process of getting pure nitrogen is easy, ask any chemistry lab. It would be far easier to obtain than the chemicals we currently use in lethal injection, and significantly less expensive.

It is also extremely safe for use as a gas. If it is vented into the atmosphere there will be no environmental risks, and no one will be harmed. It can be vented by merely putting a fan into the chamber or blowing it out of the mask. Either way, witnesses, experts, and doctors should be safe from succumbing to its effects.

Let’s review what the proposal briefly. Due to the nature of the Supreme Court and capital punishment’s continued necessity, an alternative to lethal injection is needed. That alternative is poisonous gas. It can be administered using either a mask or a custom built chamber. If nitrogen gas is used it is safe, effective, and cost effective. Not committing to at least keeping it as an option would be a severe loss to the methods and procedures that science continues to improve on and would be a loss to the state as a whole. For everything contained in this letter I strongly recommend that nitrogen gas be used as a means for administration of capital crimes.

Respectfully Submitted,


Office of the Assistant Attorney General