The state of Arizona is reportedly preparing to execute death row inmates using hydrogen cyanide — and has “refurbished” a mothballed gas chamber using primitive techniques.
The Republican-controlled state’s Department of Corrections spent more than $2,000 on ingredients for the lethal gas, the Guardian reported, citing partially redacted documents it obtained through public records requests.
It noted that the gas is the same as Zyklon B, which the Nazis used at Auschwitz and other extermination camps.
The items the department bought included a solid brick of potassium cyanide, sodium hydroxide pellets and sulfuric acid, according to the news outlet.
It also “refurbished” a gas chamber in Florence, Arizona, where it was built in 1949 but had not been used for 22 years, the Guardian added, citing the documents it obtained.
The windows and the door of the mothballed facility were checked to ensure a tight seal, drains were cleared of debris and a smoke grenade was ignited to simulate the gas, according to the report.
Some of the measures used to test the chamber were extremely primitive, including checking for gas leaks with a candle, whose flame was observed for flickers.
In December, the chamber was declared to be “operationally ready,” the Guardian reported.
The Copper State has not carried out any executions since 2014, when it botched that of the condemned Joseph Wood — taking two hours and 15 injections before he was finally declared dead.
Last month, the Guardian reported that Arizona has spent $1.5 million on a batch of pentobarbital, a sedative it now hopes to use as its main lethal injection method.
Death row inmates who opt for the gas chamber, meanwhile, should consider the last time a person was gassed by the state, the news outlet noted.
Walter LaGrand, who was sentenced to death for a 1982 bank robbery in which a man was killed, displayed “agonizing choking and gagging” during his 1999 execution, which took 18 minutes, according to a Tucson Citizen account cited by the Guardian.
“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,” it added.
Two death row inmates who face execution are Frank Atwood, 65, who was convicted of killing 8-year-old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson in 1984, and Clarence Dixon, 65, who was convicted of the 1978 murder of college student Deana Bowdoin, the Guardian said.
Joseph Perkovich, an attorney for Atwood, complained to the Guardian that the state is hurrying toward setting an execution date when the COVID-19 pandemic had impeded a probe into his client’s possible innocence.
As for Atwood’s choice between lethal injection or the gas chamber, Perkovich said: “Neither option is tenable.”
He cited a discrepancy between the potassium cyanide obtained by the Corrections Department and the state’s execution protocol, which stipulates the use of sodium cyanide.
“This is not a small detail — the specific compound is vitally important,” he said.
“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,” the attorney added.
During last year’s tests, the Guardian reported, prison guards pretending to be inmates resisted going to their death, screaming, “This is murder!” and “This is against everything America stands for!”
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the outlet: “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.”
He added: “Did they have anybody study the history of the Holocaust?”