PHOENIX – As it aims to resume executions after a seven-year hiatus, Arizona has refurbished its gas chamber, where the nation's last lethal-gas execution was carried out more than two decades ago before the United States rejected the brutal nature of the deaths.
The state has purchased materials to make hydrogen cyanide gas, which was used in some past U.S. executions and which the Nazis used to kill 865,000 Jews at the Auschwitz concentration camp alone.
The secret refurbishment late last year at the prison in Florence, southeast of Phoenix, is drawing criticism as a cruel approach out of touch with modern sensibilities.
“Whether or not one supports the death penalty as a general matter, there is general agreement in American society that a gas devised as a pesticide, and used to eliminate Jews, has no place in the administration of criminal justice,” the American Jewish Committee wrote in a statement this week.
The gas chamber wouldn't replace lethal injection as Arizona's standard execution method, and corrections officials declined to say why they are restarting it. It is only offered as an option to death row prisoners convicted of crimes that occurred before Arizona adopted lethal injection in 1992. It's unclear whether any of the state's 17 eligible death-row prisoners have expressed such a preference.
However, lethal injection has posed a problem for states as manufacturers of the necessary drugs refuse to supply them. Arizona revealed this spring it had obtained a shipment of pentobarbital, but executions have neared record lows nationally amid the shortage.
South Carolina responded last month by passing a law that forces death row inmates to choose between the electric chair or a newly formed firing squad.
Arizona's effort to make its gas chamber operable again was revealed in records obtained by the Guardian newspaper.
Authorities in December bought a brick of potassium cyanide, sodium hydroxide pellets and sulfuric acid for producing cyanide gas. Rubber seals on the chamber's hatch door and windows were replaced. An exhaust fan in the chemical mixing room was repaired. A candle was lit near the door and windows to test the chamber's airtightness, and a smoke grenade was set off inside to ensure that a fan and vent were working, according to the records.
In “The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber,” writer Scott Christianson said 594 people died in lethal gas executions in the United States from 1924 to 1999. Lethal gas execution laws also remain on the books in California, Missouri and Wyoming.