Gas chamber restoration in Arizona sparks new debate over executions

Reports that Arizona has restored its gas chamber is sparking new debate about executions.

The chamber is housed at the state prison in Florence, and hasn’t been used in more than two decades, But that could change in the coming months.

Related: Arizona refurbishes gas chamber in push to resume executions

On June 10, the Associated Press reported that 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.

Gas chamber last used in 1999

According to the Associated Press, Walter LaGrand, the second of two German brothers sentenced to death for killing a bank manager in Southern Arizona in 1982, was the last person in America to be put to death in a gas chamber.

Witness reportedly said it took more than 10 minutes of gasping and convulsing before LaGrand died.

According to the Associated Press, Walter and his brother, Karl, both chose the gas chamber in hopes that courts would find the method unconstitutional. While Karl accepted the state’s last-minute offer of lethal injection, Walter rejected it, saying he would prefer a more painful execution to protest the death penalty.

The case drew widespread criticism in Germany, which has no death penalty, and prompted repeated diplomatic protests.

Gas chamber refurbishment done in secret

Technically, the gas chamber never went away, and the refurbishment of the chamber took place in secret in 2020. The chamber now has new rubber seals, windows and an exhaust fan. The air tightness was tested with a smoke bomb and candle.

The gas chamber's secret refurbishment was part of Arizona's push to resume executions. The state's Attorney General, Mark Brnovich, talked about the death penalty in May 2021.

"The rule of law needs to mean something, and ultimately, that means that people who commit the worst crimes deserve the ultimate punishment," said Attorney General Brnovich at the time. He declined to speak with us about the gas chamber on June 11.

Some believe gas chamber needs to go

17 death row prisoners convicted before the year 1992 can choose between the gas chamber or lethal injection. Attorney Dale Baich, who represents several dozens of them, believes the gas option, especially, needs to go.

"So that we don’t stand out in the United States or in the world community as using this barbaric method to execute people," said Baich.

Death penalty opponents, meanwhile, call the gas chamber political, expensive and immoral.

"That the State of Arizona is ready to move forward with an unprecedented killing spree, with the same gas used in the Holocaust is a stark example of the harsh nature of the death penalty itself," said Keith Heade.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Arizona officials should have recognized the implications that gas chambers carry, given the Nazis’ use of Zyklon B, a pesticide that had as its lethal component hydrogen cyanide gas.

Ducey spokesperson speaks out

When asked by the Associated Press to comment on the criticism, Gov. Ducey spokesperson C.J. Karamargin said, "Gov. Ducey is following the law as it’s spelled out in Arizona’s constitution. Victims have been waiting a long time for justice in many of these cases."

Executions could take place in coming months

The state signaled it would pursue two executions in the coming months. Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon would in theory get to choose between the gas chamber and lethal injection. That could happen by late September.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

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