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Oklahoma to continue lethal injections as Alabama eyes nitrogen gas executions

Oklahoma State Penitentiary houses Oklahoma's death row prisoners.
Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma
Oklahoma State Penitentiary houses Oklahoma's death row prisoners.

Oklahoma prison officials are watching closely as Alabama attempts to become the first state to use nitrogen hypoxia to carry out an execution.

Steven Harpe, Department of Corrections director, said in an interview that he’s open to the alternate method, but he’d like to see nitrogen hypoxia used in a series of executions elsewhere before the state makes any changes.

“They’re going to have to go through it a lot before I’m going to be like, ‘Let’s go do it,’ because what we’re doing now we know works,” he said.

Harpe said he’s watching what happens in Alabama.

The Alabama Attorney General’s Office on Friday asked the state Supreme Court to allow a death row inmate to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia, which was authorized in 2018 but has never been used. Litigation is expected if Alabama is allowed to proceed with this new execution method.

Oklahoma is one of two other states that has authorized the execution method that involves putting inmates to death using pure nitrogen. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has taken years to develop the protocols.

Proponents have suggested the untested execution method could be more humane because an inmate would pass out while breathing nitrogen and die from the lack of oxygen. Critics though have likened it to human experimentation.

Should the new execution method prove humane and effective, Harpe said nitrogen hypoxia could be a simpler option than administering the state’s three-drug lethal injection protocols.

“We care about that inmate’s experience,” Harpe said. “I want to make sure that’s as humane as possible for him, for his family, for the victim’s family, for everybody that has to witness that.

“If Alabama’s process, if they’re successful with it, and it becomes something that is medically proven to be better than what we’re doing, a one-drug protocol is easier to administer than a three-drug protocol.”

Oklahoma, though, is unlikely to change its capital punishment protocols anytime soon. Barring a change in state law, nitrogen hypoxia can only be used if the state’s primary execution method — lethal injection — is no longer an option.

Oklahoma in 2015 became the first state to authorize nitrogen hypoxia. Mississippi and Alabama followed suit.

The change in Oklahoma followed a 2014 botched execution in which death row inmate Clayton Lockett writhed and moaned before being declared dead 43 minutes after the lethal injection process began.

In 2015, Oklahoma carried out an execution using a lethal injection drug that was not approved under state protocols. A second execution was postponed when prison officials discovered they once again had an unapproved drug.

In 2018, then-Attorney General Mike Hunter and former Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh announced the state planned to use nitrogen hypoxia for executions amid difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs. That change never came to fruition.

Oklahoma resumed executions in 2021 after a six-year moratorium.

State law also allows for executions by electric chair or firing squad if other methods are unavailable.

This story was originally published by Oklahoma Voice, part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Carmen covers state government, politics and health care for Oklahoma Voice. A Norman native, she previously worked in Arizona and Virginia before she began reporting on the Oklahoma Capitol.
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