The corrections department has spent more than $2,000 on ingredients to make cyanide gas, the same used in Auschwitz
The state of Arizona is preparing to kill death row inmates using hydrogen cyanide, the same lethal gas that was deployed at Auschwitz.
Documents obtained by the Guardian reveal that Arizona’s department of corrections has spent more than $2,000 in procuring the ingredients to make cyanide gas. The department bought a solid brick of potassium cyanide in December for $1,530.
It also purchased sodium hydroxide pellets and sulfuric acid which are intended to be used to generate the deadly gas. The gas chamber itself, built in 1949 and disused for 22 years, has been dusted off and, according to the department, “refurbished”.
Over the past few months the Republican-controlled state has moved aggressively to restart its deeply flawed execution system. The death penalty has been in abeyance in Arizona for seven years following the gruesomely botched lethal injection of Joseph Wood in 2014.
Last month, the Guardian revealed that Arizona spent a jaw-dropping $1.5m on a batch of pentobarbital in October, a sedative which it now hopes to use as its main lethal injection method.
The Guardian’s documents, obtained through public records requests, show that officials have also gone to considerable lengths to revive the state’s mothballed gas chamber, housed at ASPC-Florence. A series of tests were conducted last August to appraise its “operability”.
Seals on windows and the door were checked to ensure airtightness, and drains cleared of blockage. Water was used in the tests in place of the deadly chemicals, with a smoke grenade ignited to simulate the gas.
Some of the techniques used to test the safety of the chamber were astonishingly primitive, the documents reveal. Prison officials checked for gas seepages with a candle.
The flame of the candle was held up to the sealed windows and door and if its flame remained steady and did not flicker the chamber was deemed to be airtight. In December staff declared the vessel “operationally ready”.
The preparation of cyanide gas executions presents Arizona death row inmates with a Hobson’s choice between two questionable ways to die. Should they opt for the gas chamber, they should be mindful of the last time anybody was gassed by the state.
Walter LaGrand, a German national, was sentenced to death for a 1982 bungled armed bank robbery in which a man was killed. The Tucson Citizen published an eyewitness account of his 1999 execution in which he displayed “agonizing choking and gagging” and took 18 minutes to die.
“The witness room fell silent as a mist of gas rose, much like steam in a shower, and Walter LaGrand became enveloped in a cloud of cyanide vapor,” the Citizen reported. “He began coughing violently – three or four loud hacks – and made a gagging sound before falling forward.”
The newspaper recorded that over many minutes the inmate’s head and arms twitched, and his hands were “red and clenched”.
Should an inmate choose death by lethal injection – the method widely deployed among death penalty states as the supposedly scientific and humane alternative to gas, electric chair or firing squad – they will also find the last time it was used in Arizona it was anything but humane.
Joseph Wood took almost two hours to die when Arizona experimented on him with 15 doses of a then little-used concoction of lethal injection drugs. An eye witness told the Guardian that he counted Wood gasp and gulp 660 times.
In its current rush to restart executions, Arizona has selected two inmates as likely candidates to go first out of a current death row population of 115 people. They are Frank Atwood, 65, sentenced to death for killing an eight-year-old girl, Vicki Lynne Hoskinson, in 1984; and Clarence Dixon, 65, convicted of the 1978 murder of a college student, Deana Bowdoin.
A member of Atwood’s legal team, Joseph Perkovich of Phillips Black, told the Guardian that it was improper for the state to be hurrying towards setting an execution date when the pandemic had impeded investigation into his client’s possible innocence for more than a year. As for Atwood’s choice between lethal injection or gas, Perkovich said: “Neither option is tenable.”
The attorney pointed out that there is a discrepancy between the potassium cyanide that has been obtained by the corrections department and the state’s execution protocol which stipulates that sodium cyanide must be used. “This is not a small detail – the specific compound is vitally important,” he said.
Perkovich added that “Frank Atwood is prepared to die. He is a man of Greek Orthodox faith and is preparing for this moment. But he does not want to be tortured and subjected to a botched execution.”
Inmates who choose the gas chamber are strapped into a chair in the centre of the vessel. Coloured levers are then used to drop the sodium cyanide into a pot of sulfuric acid under the chair, releasing the deadly hydrogen cyanide into the air.
Once the prisoner is dead, the gas is neutralized with ammonia until the chamber is safe to enter. “As a precautionary method,” the death chamber protocol says, “it is recommended that the team removing the body wear gas masks and rubber gloves and that the hair of the deceased inmate be ruffled in order to allow any residually trapped gas to escape.”
The documents record how prison staff engaged in role play during last year’s tests. Guards acted out as inmates who resisted going to their death, screaming: “This is murder”, “I’m innocent”, “You’re putting me down like an animal”, and “This is against everything America stands for”.
Despite Arizona’s best efforts to present its gas chamber as a reputable institution, the horrors of the past hang heavily over it. The Nazis used hydrogen cyanide under the trade name Zyklon B to kill more than 1 million people in gas chambers in Auschwitz and other extermination camps.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said: “You have to wonder what Arizona was thinking in believing that in 2021 it is acceptable to execute people in a gas chamber with cyanide gas. Did they have anybody study the history of the Holocaust?”