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Why Arizona May Resume Gas Chamber Executions

By Jimmy Jenkins, Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, June 7, 2021 - 12:59pm
Updated: Monday, June 7, 2021 - 3:50pm

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Arizona State Prison Complex - Florence
Arizona Department of Corrections
Arizona State Prison Complex - Florence.

Arizona could soon be resuming executions after more than seven years.

Recent reporting from the Guardian revealed that part of the preparations for that process include refurbishing a gas chamber at the state prison in Florence.

To learn more about this, The Show spoke with KJZZ’s Jimmy Jenkins.

LAUREN GILGER: Can you remind us how we got to this point?

JIMMY JENKINS: Yeah. Arizona has not executed anyone since Joseph Wood in 2014. The state at the time had just moved to a new lethal injection cocktail for the first time, and it ended up requiring 15 doses over the course of two hours for the state to put Wood to death. So that execution resulted in Arizona changing its lethal injection protocols. So we have that going.

However, another method of execution is also at play, Lauren, as you mentioned, the gas chamber. In 1992 after the execution of Don Harding by lethal gas which lasted more than 10 minutes and witnesses said was really gruesome, Arizonans voted to change the law to perform executions by lethal injection. But those convicted before the change would still have choice.

So then fast forward to 2020. After federal executions emboldened the states, Arizona sought out and acquired the same drug used in those executions, which is pentobarbital, and that is now the preferred method of execution in Arizona. After that drug was secured, the Attorney General’s office announced it would pursue the death penalty for two men, Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon, but because they were convicted before the law change in '92, they have to be offered this choice. So that's why we see Arizona not only preparing for lethal injections but also the possibility of lethal gas executions.

GILGER: OK, and can you tell us about the men who the state is pursuing the death penalty for here?

JENKINS: Yes. Clarence Dixon was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1978 killing of Deana Bowdoin, a 21-year-old Arizona State University student. And Frank Atwood was convicted in Pima County and sentenced to death for the 1984 killing of 8-year-old Vicki Lynn Hoskinson in 1984. Authorities say Atwood kidnapped the girl, whose body was found in the desert northwest of Tucson.

Attorneys for both men have declined to comment on the preferred method of execution, but they have expressed concerns about the lethal gas option. Atwood’s attorney, Joseph Perkovich, noted that Arizona’s execution protocols actually call for sodium cyanide, but the documents provided to KJZZ from the Department of Corrections say Arizona has actually purchased potassium cyanide to make lethal gas. There's a discrepancy there.

Dale Baich, who is assistant federal public defender and attorney for Dixon, said he is deeply concerned that Arizona is seriously considering a plan to carry out executions using lethal gas. He called it brutal and a primitive method that has been held unconstitutional.

Lauren, when I asked Department of Corrections about these concerns. all they would say is that they are following state law. Their response was that they “are prepared to fulfill its constitutional obligations, carry out court orders and deliver justice to the victims' families.”

GILGER: When was the last time the gas chamber was used in Arizona, Jimmy?

JENKINS: That was for Walter LaGrand, who was the last person to be executed with gas in 1999, which lasted nearly 18 minutes, and witnesses again testified to it being an agonizing death. Robert Dunham is the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. They track death penalty news across the country and are critical of the way it is carried out. He says a death by cyanide gas is very painful:

ROBERT DUNHAM: There are other ways of carrying out executions that don't involve the intentional infliction of this kind of pain. And you have to wonder why in 2021 the state of Arizona could remotely think that it would be appropriate to execute people using cyanide gas.

GILGER: Jimmy is there anything in the constitution about this or any legal precedent with regard to executing someone this way, with lethal gas?

JENKINS: Well, the constitution prohibits executions in a manner that cruel or unusual, but Dunham says how that is defined has changed over time:

DUNHAM: It's supposed to reflect our evolving moral standards. And the United States Supreme Court has never itself declared any particular method of execution to be unconstitutional. However, the gas chamber was declared unconstitutional by a federal district court in California. That decision was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which also governs Arizona. The United States Supreme Court vacated that decision and sent it back to California for some more proceedings. And then ultimately, California did away with the gas chamber, so there is no ruling from the United States Supreme Court on this.

GILGER: And Jimmy, what about the comparisons we're hearing made to the Holocaust here? When the Guardian first reported on this development, they framed it in way that drew parallels to the Nazis' use of Zyklon B — is this the same thing?

JENKINS: Zyklon B was the name of a pesticide invented in Germany that was made with hydrogen cyanide that was used in the Holocaust in the gas chambers. Arizona’s guidelines call for the use of Cyanide gas as well, so in that way the method of execution is similar.

GILGER: OK, so what can we expect moving forward?

JENKINS: The Supreme Court justices set a briefing schedule for the Atwood and Dixon cases. They have said they will conference on the cases in August and September. At that point, Lauren, if they do issue a death warrant, the Department of Corrections has 35 days to carry out the execution. So we could see executions as early as this fall.

GILGER: All right. That's KJZZ’s Jimmy Jenkins. Jimmy, thank you,

JENKINS: You’re welcome Lauren.

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