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United States Government Science

States Turn To an Unproven Method of Execution: Nitrogen Gas (nytimes.com) 646

States are reportedly turning to nitrogen gas to carry out the death penalty. "Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi have authorized nitrogen for executions and are developing protocols to use it, which represents a leap into the unknown," reports The New York Times. "There is no scientific data on executing people with nitrogen, leading some experts to question whether states, in trying to solve old problems, may create new ones." Slashdot reader schwit1 shares an excerpt from a report via The New York Times: What little is known about human death by nitrogen comes from industrial and medical accidents and its use in suicide. In accidents, when people have been exposed to high levels of nitrogen and little air in an enclosed space, they have died quickly. In some cases co-workers who rushed in to rescue them also collapsed and died. Nitrogen itself is not poisonous, but someone who inhales it, with no air, will pass out quickly, probably in less than a minute, and die soon after -- from lack of oxygen. The same is true of other physiologically inert gases, including helium and argon, which kill only by replacing oxygen.

Death from nitrogen is thought to be painless. It should prevent the condition that causes feelings of suffocation: the buildup of carbon dioxide from not being able to exhale. Humans are highly sensitive to carbon dioxide -- too much brings on the panicky feeling of not being able to breathe. Somewhat surprisingly, the lack of oxygen doesn't trigger that same reflex. Someone breathing pure nitrogen can still exhale carbon dioxide and therefore should not have the sensation of smothering.

States Turn To an Unproven Method of Execution: Nitrogen Gas

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  • Unproven? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Normal_Deviate ( 807129 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @08:55PM (#56585090)
    That word doesn't mean what they think it means.
  • by ClarkMills ( 515300 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @09:00PM (#56585120)

    Not a fan of the death penalty but if you're going to check-out, be it by choice or inflicted then this is one of the nicest ways to go (& cheap/simple). Light headed & pass out. Helium balloons work too but you need a mask to keep the thing in place.

    What's good for CO2 scrubbing? A simple balloon rebreather & CO2 absorber should do the job if a bit slower while the O2 converts. I guess I'm coming at this problem from the euthanasia angle rather than the "kill our citizens" one... Not speaking from experience realise... ;) [well I think we've all gone light-headed with the Helium thing]

    • by whoever57 ( 658626 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @10:15PM (#56585450) Journal

      The problem comes with the name. What do you call a nitrogen gas execution chamber?

      Obviously, a "gas chamber". That term has some baggage.

      • So use a mask like euthanasia does. 'Gas mask' doesn't have much baggage. It's worth the problems in any case; as long as we insist on executing people, inert gas is far more reliable than our other methods, painless, fast, easy to administer, easy to acquire supplies for, and safe for bystanders (unlike poisonous gas). It's really the best way to do things pending a more enlightened criminal justice system.
        • by mvdwege ( 243851 ) <mvdwege@mail.com> on Thursday May 10, 2018 @03:32AM (#56586504) Homepage Journal

          as long as we insist on executing people, inert gas is far more reliable than our other methods, painless

          (emphasis mine)

          You hit the nail on the head here. Most death penalty proponents do not want to execute criminals, they want to see what they see as Bad People(tm) suffer. They don't want execution. They want torture, the more horrible the better.

          • Most death penalty proponents do not want to execute criminals, they want to see what they see as Bad People(tm) suffer. They don't want execution. They want torture, the more horrible the better.

            If this is true, I suppose we could always go back to burning them at the stake.

            "When death does not deter, the process of death must."

            - James Ist, on Why He Ordered the Butchery of Priests

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Mashiki ( 184564 )

        Obviously, a "gas chamber". That term has some baggage.

        So does "eugenics" but some people seem really in favor of killing those that might be born disabled and fighting against laws that would ban it along with sex-selective abortions.

      • The problem comes with the name. What do you call a nitrogen gas execution chamber? Obviously, a "gas chamber".

        Then they should use Helium and call it a "laughs chamber".

      • It's no more gas chamber than the room you're currently sitting in is a gas chamber (because it has air - a gas - in it).. Nitrogen just happens to be the gas used because it's the most easily accessible and cheapest. But you could use any other gas as long as it's not oxygen. Even CO2 despite it triggering the short of breath reflex. Loss of consciousness from complete oxygen deprivation happens within about 15 seconds, and death within about a minute. That's why the safety briefing on planes tells yo
      • Obviously, a "gas chamber". That term has some baggage.

        Well, they don't call the room they do lethal injected in the "Poison by injection room." I think it's just the execution room, and that can still apply here, and hopefully it's good enough to soothe your sensibilities.

      • What do you call a nitrogen gas execution chamber?

        A surprise prison cell? No, seriously, I was wondering if there'd be an option for people to die in their sleep. The unexpectedness could prevent a lot of awkwardness.

  • Dr Kevorkian (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kernel Kurtz ( 182424 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @09:01PM (#56585126) Homepage

    used helium gas to assist his patients who wanted to commit suicide. I believe it is still used by organizations such as Dignitas for the same purpose.

    • Re:Dr Kevorkian (Score:5, Interesting)

      by apoc.famine ( 621563 ) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .enimaf.copa.> on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @09:07PM (#56585158) Journal

      Yep. As long as neutral gas comes in and CO2 goes out, everything seems hunky dory until you get light headed, pass out, and die. And likely still seems great during that process.

      Long time ago I hung out with an AWACS guy who had to drill on O2 deprivation, learning how to recognize it, how long his mental faculties held up, and practicing how to get the airplane set on a course to 10,000 ft before he passed out. Said it was the #1 choice of his when it was time to go.

      • by dohzer ( 867770 )

        Maybe someone similar was flying for Malaysian Airlines when MH370 happened.

      • Re:Dr Kevorkian (Score:5, Interesting)

        by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Thursday May 10, 2018 @04:28AM (#56586638)

        Said it was the #1 choice of his when it was time to go.

        I've actually seen it. The airline pilot has it even worse as he is deprived partially but not wholly of it. With pure N2 you have about 2-3 breaths and you're done. You don't even notice how quickly you go under because you think you're getting air all the while there's nothing in your lungs to help Oxygenate your blood. Ever hear of patients passing out during respirometries? They literally can't last 10 seconds with depleted lungs, and in those scenarios even attempting to fully breath out your lungs still actually have some air in them.

        I went with a technician to fix an NIR analyser one day. We opened the door to the analyser hut. He stepped forward, not even in the hut, still in the doorway, and collapsed. He hit the ground before his gas detector was able to alert him of lack of oxygen it was that quick. I grabbed him by the foot and dragged him away. Guy survived by had horrible scratches on his face, not that he was complaining about the rescue method. Gave me a very big respect for confined spaces with gas bottles in them. Stupid thing was this hut had two doors. The other door had a flashing light above it indicating low O2 in the hut. Whoever fitted these huts only bought one beacon for each assuming they all only had one door.

        • You don't even notice how quickly you go under because you think you're getting air all the while there's nothing in your lungs to help Oxygenate your blood.

          It's worse than that. If your breathing gas has 0 atm ppO2 (partial pressure of O2), your lung contents ppO2 is lower than the ppO2 of your bloodstream. This means osmosis pulls O2 out of your blood in an attempt to equalize the partial pressures of the gas on each side of the semi-permeable membrane. Of course, it also pulls CO2 out, so your body doesn't get the "I'm suffocating!" signal that high ppCO2 in the bloodstream signals.

  • by charlie merritt ( 4684639 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @09:05PM (#56585148)

    This has been experienced thousands of times in places like Air Force training. They live and talk about passing out as either sudden or quite enjoyable. So yes it works fast and painless. HOWEVER you must still question WHY KILL?

    There are many fast and painless methods, a slaughter house probably could give pointers - but people aren't food animals SO WHY KILL?

    • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @09:17PM (#56585188)

      Because cavemen. And also lying about it, because "punishment" is something you can walk away from. This is revenge and savagery.

      • by bistromath007 ( 1253428 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @10:43PM (#56585586)
        With life imprisonment as the other option, it is far more humane. That would be true if we had Swedish prisons, which are practically luxury apartments. Being caged and isolated do severe damage to the human psyche. The only legit moral issue with the death penalty is that it's imperative to be completely sure you have a guilty man; admittedly, our system is awful at this.
        • by djinn6 ( 1868030 ) on Thursday May 10, 2018 @02:08AM (#56586304)

          The only legit moral issue with the death penalty is that it's imperative to be completely sure you have a guilty man; admittedly, our system is awful at this.

          Death penalty or not, the system should not convict the innocent at all. I makes me sad how many people harp on death penalty while happily allowing confessions and eye witnesses to be used at trials. Those have been proven to be easily manipulated and directly responsible for imprisoning the innocent. It's as if thousands of lifetimes behind bars is better than even one execution.

          There's also the issue of settlements. Those basically allow the rich and powerful to skirt the law because the state can't be bothered to fight it all the way. Meanwhile, the poor with their overworked public defenders don't have the resources to fight the long battle, and, regardless of their innocence, have to settle for a plea bargain.

        • The other problem with the death penalty is that it's applied capriciously. Someone who's an accomplice to a crime that results in murder may be the death penalty while the person who actually did the killing may get 25 years with parole possibility instead, in the same jurisdiction. The death penalty is absolutely not reserved only for the most heinous crimes. Often prosecutors seek the death penalty because it looks good around re-election time.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ooloorie ( 4394035 )

      HOWEVER you must still question WHY KILL?

      Because some people are irredeemable: if you release them back into society, they are going to kill again; if you place them in prison, they are going to harm other inmates; if you place them in solitary confinement, that's cruel too.

      What do you propose to do with them?

    • by Beeftopia ( 1846720 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @10:48PM (#56585602)

      HOWEVER you must still question WHY KILL?

      * It prevents the offender from hurting anyone again. Incarceration does not. [startribune.com] Incarcerated murder kill prison staff and other prisoners, as well as escape [google.com], or serve out their sentences and re-offend.

      * It deters as surely as lesser punishments deter, like incarceration or fines. Charts of death penalty vs. murder rate in the US underscore this point. It's curious to assert that lesser punishments deter, but the harshest does not.

      * It's the closest to justice as we can get (i.e. a commensurate cost imposed on the offender). Most think the offender should incur some cost for malicious pain inflicted on others. Codes of justice going back to Hammurabi reflect a sense of fairness that it should be commensurate.

  • Violation (Score:5, Funny)

    by TranquilVoid ( 2444228 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @09:19PM (#56585196)

    Using an unproven means is a clear ethics violation. Where are the double-blind clinical trials?.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @09:21PM (#56585204)

    This story leads me to a very humorous event at work. While working on a A/C system, I noted to an inspector that the dry nitrogen in the system (used to pressure test the pipes) needed to be released into the atmosphere. This A/C was for a temporary building in the middle of a wide open yard for a power company.

    Well this idea.....releasing a gas into the atmosphere was enough to trigger multiple phone calls, and eventually a 4 week delay, since there was about 3 very important meetings about this deadly concept.

    I noted to the inspector that air contains 78% Nitrogen. But, he was not convinced, and knew that his job was now question.

    Finally, the mighty minds, agreed to let me take out the nitrogen, but it needed to be recovered.
    This time, I kept my mouth shut, and "recovered" the nitrogen........

    All was well, and the power company lives to see another day.... :)

  • by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @09:22PM (#56585208)

    You know what? If I was condemned to death, I'd want a pullet through the head. That's VERY quick and painless.

    If a state is callous enough to consider the killing of human beings an acceptable form of punishnment, why is it so fixated on killing them by pumping them full of chemicals or gasses?

    If the state officials want to sanitize the act of murdering a human being, all they have to do is stick them into a box with some kind of automated mechanism to fire a bullet through the person's head inside the box. Okay, say three bullets to be extra-sure. Then if they really, REALLY don't want to deal with the mess, they can take out the closed box whole for incineration. See? All they'd have to watch is a guy going into a box, and the guy inside the box would never suffer. No need for all that nitrogen nonsense.

    Incidentally, all these talks of gassing prisoners reeks of something else we've seen in the past [wikipedia.org]. I'm surprised our powers-that-be don't try at all costs to steer clear away from the immediate parallel those of us with a memory are certain to draw...

  • Hypocrisy... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by b0s0z0ku ( 752509 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @09:28PM (#56585232)
    We seek better and better, more and more "clinical" means of state-sanctioned killing. First the electric chair, then gas, then injection, then back to gas, apparently. It's almost as if we don't want to admit what the state is doing in the public's name. Personally, if we're going to keep the death penalty, I'd like to see the judge, jury members, and DA draw straws to be on a firing squad. If people are willing to sentence others to death, they should be willing to put their "money where their mouth" is. Better yet, get rid of capital punishment. Wasteful, expensive for appeals, and too much risk of a wrongful convicting that can't be reversed. See also: Cameron Todd Willingham and the West Memphis Three.
    • I think the problem now is that most medical supply houses are refusing to sell the drugs normally used for an overdose lethal injection. Something about medical ethics and European companies. So they're looking for an alternative. And hey, if you're going to kill someone oxygen deprivation is about as humane as it gets.

  • by ZeroPly ( 881915 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @09:38PM (#56585290)
    I'm going to sketch out some dots (really close together), and I want you to try to connect them...

    1 - you're trying to come up with a way to efficiently off people
    2 - you're constantly screeching about how fentanyl is instant death
  • Many a scuba diver knows Nitrogen Narcosis and Nitrogen death.

    Nothing misterious about it...

    Is a well proven method. And humane at that.

    If I ever make my own Kevorkian machine, this is my chosen method.

    • Re:Scuba Divers know (Score:5, Informative)

      by chrpai ( 806494 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @10:05PM (#56585406) Homepage
      Inert gas narcosis on air/nitrox doesn't become a significant concern until past 4ata / 100fsw. For air that's a PPN2 of 3.12. Breathing 100% N2 at 1 ata wouldn't even remotely induce any type of narcosis. This is different the breathing in fresh N2 with each breath. Breathing is controlled by CO2 levels and this method tricks the body into thinking everything is fine by keeping CO2 levels low in the body. Very effective... you never know what hit you. Now why are we trying to "solve old problems"? That's purely a political problem not a technical problem.
      • Inert gas narcosis on air/nitrox doesn't become a significant concern until past 4ata / 100fsw. For air that's a PPN2 of 3.12. Breathing 100% N2 at 1 ata wouldn't even remotely induce any type of narcosis.

        If you want the prisoner to enjoy his execution, you could put him in a hyperbaric chamber and pressurize it to about 6 atmospheres, then replace the gas with pure N2. PPN2 would go from 4.68 (moderate narcosis) to 6 (strong narcosis), as PPO2 went from 1.26 to 0.

        As a diver, I've long said that if I'm diagnosed with a painful or debilitating terminal disease that leaves me sufficiently healthy for a while, I'd spend time with family until I got to just before the point that I didn't want to live any more

  • you could start with N2O and slowly change to pure N,
    and laugh yourself to death.

  • Cheaper option (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @10:09PM (#56585420)

    Life in prison with no possibility of parole. That is 1/4 the cost, much more humane, and can be reversed if you realize you made a mistake such as crooked forensic scientists getting caught faking the data or police detectives forcing fake confessions. These things happen and it is much easier to say, "oops sorry" when the person is still alive.

    The death penalty DOES NOT reduce crime.

  • No brainer (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Ropati ( 111673 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @10:39PM (#56585558)

    This is the top search result for suicide on the web. The act is painless,inexpensive and generally safe. If you want to pass from this world, you should get acquainted with nitrogen masks.

    Our atmosphere is 79% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, and 1% argon. We all breath in nitrogen with no impact. If we have too much carbon dioxide in our air our bodies try to pass the bad air and get rid of the CO2. To much CO2 in our lungs and we panic.

    If we don't have oxygen, we get dizzy and pass out in a couple of breaths. Dead in 4 minutes. NO panic, rapid lose of consciousness. Death while unconscious.

    I am not a fan of executions, but if the state wants to kill them, this is far more humane then lethal injection, electrocutions, hanging or firing squad.

    They do need protocols. The nitrogen should be medical grade (ie not have any hydrocarbons) so once the act is finished spectators won't be impacted. The gas needs to be applied with a breathing mask, so the CO2 is removed with every breath and replaced with nitrogen to prevent any panic. The mask can be plumbed so the exhalations are removed such that they don't impact the O2 level in the room. There should be O2 level sensors in the room so any system failure would alert attending guards.

    The execution can be designed such that the only the execution victim suffers oxygen deprivation. There is no need to remove oxygen from the whole room..

    I am not sure anyone should be executed, but if they are going to be executed, I think this is the best way.

  • Pressureize the chamber and let them get high as they pass out. It relieves stress and creates a drunk feeling. [wikipedia.org]
  • Shithole States (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @11:03PM (#56585670) Journal

    Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi

    It's strange that places that have the highest distrust of government also are cool with the government executing people. Just yesterday, there was a story of a guy who was on death row for 16 years before he was completely exonerated. I would think that just one of those cases would be enough so that anyone with a moral compass would oppose the death penalty. But if there's one thing we know, it's that Americans love seeing people get kilt and they love feeling self-righteous, so that makes for a lethal combination. People in red states seem to love giving their governments the ultimate power over life and death.

    Fortunately, there's absolutely nothing in Oklahoma, Alabama, or Mississippi that anyone here would want, so this only affects the poor folks who live there. But it does explain why they're at the bottom of almost every state ranking of quality of life.

    • Fortunately, there's absolutely nothing in Oklahoma, Alabama, or Mississippi that anyone here would want, so this only affects the poor folks who live there. But it does explain why they're at the bottom of almost every state ranking of quality of life.

      Speaking of self-righteousness...

  • Breathhold (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Bangback ( 471080 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2018 @11:39PM (#56585832)
    The problem with N2 is that some prisoners are going to hold their breath for 3-4 minutes, then start breathing the N2. While the comments are accurate about people who want to die, or accidentally die via N2 being quick and painless, its going to be pretty ghastly to watch some guy hold his breath until blue, then start gasping for air, then go unconscious and die. Some guy will train himself for a 7+ minute breath hold. Other forms of execution aren't affected by prisoner choice -- seems an obviously cruel method to let people live as long as they can hold their breath.
  • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Thursday May 10, 2018 @02:13AM (#56586316)

    There's another problem with nitrogen. It's too humane.

    If the objective was to simply kill painlessly, all it would need is a couple of bullets to the head. People, though, are bastards. They may talk about 'justice,' but what they really mean is 'vengeance.' The public want a show. The family of any victim want a show. Politicians want a show. Many people will feel physically sickened if they believe the condemned died peacefully, as if the scales remain somehow unbalanced. This is why nitrogen was not introduced as a mean of execution years ago. Not many people are bold enough to openly say they want to see just a little bit of torture first, but it's a very common sentiment.

Logic is a pretty flower that smells bad.

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