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Oklahoma Approves Nitrogen Asphyxiation For Executions

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a law today allowing nitrogen to be used in executions in the state in case lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional or the drugs are not available.

Oklahoma is the first state to approve such a method. It would involve placing a mask over an inmate's face and supplying pure nitrogen instead of air. The condemned person slowly asphyxiates from lack of oxygen. Besides lethal injection, other methods currently approved for use in other states are electrocution, gas chamber, hanging and firing squad.

"Nitrogen-induced hypoxia is a painless form of execution that doesn't require any specific pharmaceutical compounds or any medical expertise to administer," Rep. Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, the House sponsor of the legislation, was quoted by The Tulsa World as saying. "It is a far better alternative to the electric chair should lethal injection ever become unavailable, and so I thank the governor for signing this bill into law."

Many states have experienced shortages of lethal injection drugs because manufacturers opposed to capital punishment have refused to supply them.

A study commissioned by Oklahoma and published last month concluded that "an execution protocol that induced hypoxia via nitrogen inhalation would be a humane method to carry out a death sentence."

A year ago, Oklahoma carried out a botched execution of death row inmate Clayton D. Lockett, who was given the sedative midazolam due to a shortage of the drug normally used, sodium thiopental. Lockett took 45 minutes to die as he writhed in pain on the execution gurney.

The Atlantic noted in an article published last month: "This isn't Oklahoma's first time engineering new execution methods. The modern lethal-injection protocol was first proposed by an Oklahoma state medical examiner named Jay Chapman in 1977."

In March, Utah also brought back the firing squad.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.