Posts Tagged ‘execution’

Execution by nitrogen

March 18, 2015

The cryogenic industrial scale separation of nitrogen (and oxygen) from air can be traced back to 1895 when

In May 1895, Carl von Linde performed an experiment in his laboratory in Munich that led to his invention of the first continuous process for the liquefaction of air based on the Joule-Thomson refrigeration effect and the principle of countercurrent heat exchange. This marked the breakthrough for cryogenic air separation.

Cryogenic separation is normally used to produce nitrogen (78.1%), oxygen (20.9%) and argon (0.9%). Other methods are used for separating and concentrating the other trace gases in the atmosphere. Nitrogen is stable, non-explosive and inert. The growth of the chemical and oil refining industries saw a huge increase in the use of nitrogen for its physical and chemical properties. Since it is transported and stored in liquid form (cryogenic tanks) it could provide a source of “cold”, could come at very high pressures and was chemically inert. Moreover it was a raw material that was needed for the manufacture of fertilisers and pharmaceuticals. Its industrial use and medical use is widespread. Nitrogen is used – among many other things – as an assist gas for laser cutting, in creating welding atmospheres, as a pressurising gas in liquid pipelines, as a shielding or blanketing material for explosive or oxygen-sensitive materials, as a purging agent when cleaning tanks or pipes and as a freezing agent. Today there are few hospitals or factories (in any industry) which do not have a nitrogen storage facility of some kind.

In power plants nitrogen is often used for pressurising, purging, cooling or protection. I first came across a death caused by nitrogen in the 1970s when a maintenance worker entered a pulverised coal storage silo which had been blanketed with nitrogen for explosion protection during a shut-down. It was not a pressurised silo and therefore not seen as being a high risk area. By accident, he had entered the silo without a companion being present and without his breathing equipment. He was only found hours later inside the silo and it became clear that his asphyxiation had happened so fast that he had had no time to struggle, let alone call for any assistance. Of course the death was not so much caused by nitrogen as by the lack of oxygen and the resulting hypoxia. Nitrogen asphyxiation is not unknown as an industrial cause of death. Through the 1980s and 1990s, I came across another 4 accidental deaths at power plants where workers had inadvertently entered a nitrogen atmosphere. Just in the US, there were 80 industrial deaths and 50 injuries due to nitrogen asphyxiation between 1992 and 2002.

Effects of oxygen deficiency US CSB

Effects of oxygen deficiency US CSB

Nitrogen cylinders are readily available and nitrogen asphyxiation has already become – unofficially of course – one of the methods being used for end-of-life assisted deaths and suicides. It is said that the subject feels light-headed and euphoric first due to oxygen deficiency and then slips into unconsciousness and a supposed painless death. In an atmosphere with 4-6% oxygen, unconsciousness and a coma result in less than 40 seconds. An oxygen mask connected to a nitrogen – rather than an oxygen – cylinder is all that is apparently required. We cannot know for sure but it is thought that the subject:

is not stunned by the burning urge to breathe or the choking sensation of not having any air. As far as he realizes, he is breathing normally. Carbon dioxide is not building up in his bloodstream, so he never realizes that he is in danger. The subject is never in any pain he simply just passes out when his blood oxygen level falls to(o) low.

And now the State of Oklahoma is proposing that nitrogen asphyxiation be used as method of “humane” execution. (I think “humane” in this context is just a euphemism for “quick, unconscious and painless”).

Washington Post: ….. But in Oklahoma, a bill is advancing that would introduce an entirely new and untested method of execution: death by nitrogen inhalation.

“It’s probably the best thing we’ve come up with since the start of executing people by government,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Christian (R) told the Oklahoman

Nitrogen gas itself is odorless and nontoxic, and makes up 78 percent of the atmosphere. It only becomes lethal when someone breathes it in at high concentrations, and only then because that person is therefore not getting enough oxygen.

The proposed law is vague on the exact procedure, but Christian has said that it would be cheap and simple. Some kind of bag or breathing mask would be placed around the inmate’s head. Nitrogen gas would be pumped in, displacing any oxygen. The inmate would start to feel lightheaded, possibly euphoric, which are symptoms of oxygen deprivation. Painless death would soon follow.

Or that’s what’s supposed to happen, though nobody really knows for certain. (Generally speaking, medical professionals refuse to conduct research into killing methods.) …… 

…. At Rep. Christian’s behest, professors at East Central University recently produced a report on death by nitrogen. 

Report recommendations:

Nitrogen Induced Hypoxia as a Form of Capital Punishment,

Michael Copeland JD., Thom Parr MS. and Christine Papas JD., PhD.

The study found that:

1. An execution protocol that induced hypoxia via nitrogen inhalation would be a humane method to carry out a death sentence.

2. Death sentence protocols carried out using nitrogen inhalation would not require the assistance of licensed medical professionals.

3. Death sentences carried out by nitrogen inhalation would be simple to administer.

4. Nitrogen is readily available for purchase and sourcing would not pose a difficulty.

5. Death sentences carried out by nitrogen inhalation would not depend upon the cooperation of the offender being executed.

6. Use of nitrogen as a method of execution can assure a quick and painless death of the offender.

Accordingly, it is the recommendation of this study that hypoxia induced by the inhalation of nitrogen be offered as an alternative method of administering capital punishment in the State of Oklahoma.

In this modern, civilised, 21st century, firing squads, beheadings, stoning, being pushed off a roof-top, being poisoned (gas, lethal injection), hanging, electrocution and asphyxiation are all in use or proposed as methods of execution. Not so very different from the barbarous times of the Middle Ages.

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Ohio execution fails the humane animal slaughter test

January 18, 2014

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, the botched execution of Dennis McGuire on January 16th in Ohio leaves me feeling very uneasy.

The most powerful State in today’s world – in the name of the citizens of that State – took almost 25 minutes to execute a condemned man. Ohio plans 5 more executions this year and the State Assistant Attorney General Thomas Madden has argued that while the U.S. Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, “you’re not entitled to a pain-free execution.” U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost apparently agrees with that. Thomas Madden and Gregory Frost would seem to hold that humans – unlike animals – are not entitled to be executed humanely.

The US has a Law for the humane slaughter of animals – The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act. This law requires as follows:

7 U.S.C.A. § 1902. Humane methods ….. Either of the following two methods of slaughtering and handling are hereby found to be humane:

(a) in the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, all animals are rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut; or

(b) by slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith or any other religious faith that prescribes a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument and handling in connection with such slaughtering.

Contrast this with the AP report of the execution:

A condemned man appeared to gasp several times and took an unusually long time to die — more than 20 minutes — in an execution carried out Thursday with a combination of drugs never before tried in the U.S. …….  McGuire’s lawyers had attempted last week to block his execution, arguing that the untried method could lead to a medical phenomenon known as “air hunger” and could cause him to suffer “agony and terror” while struggling to catch his breath. McGuire, 53, made loud snorting noises during one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999. Nearly 25 minutes passed between the time the lethal drugs began flowing and McGuire was pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m. Executions under the old method were typically much shorter and did not cause the kind of sounds McGuire made. ………. Prison officials gave intravenous doses of two drugs, the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone, to put McGuire to death for the 1989 rape and fatal stabbing of a pregnant newlywed, Joy Stewart. The method was adopted after supplies of a previously used drug, the powerful sedative pentobarbital, dried up because the manufacturer declared it off limits for capital punishment. ……… What was particularly unusual Thursday was the five minutes or so that McGuire lay motionless on the gurney after the drugs began flowing, followed by a sudden snort and then more than 10 minutes of irregular breathing and gasping. Normally, movement comes at the beginning and is followed by inactivity.

The key point for “humaneness” would appear to be that the victim be first rendered insensible or unconscious very quickly and by methods that are “rapid and effective”. That seems to have been missing here. Presumably the sanctity of “the process” of execution prevented any of the assembled crowd from doing anything to correct the situation. Everybody just waited the full 25 minutes and watched!

I take barbarism to be inelegance of behaviour. Beheading would have been less barbaric. If a firing squad or a guillotine were not appropriate, couldn’t someone have just hit him on the head or otherwise “rendered him insensible” first?

UK embraces being “cared to death”

November 1, 2012

I have posted earlier about the disturbing ethical questions with the “Care Pathways” in the UK  which operate in the grey zone between euthanasia and execution.

But it is more than just disturbing when UK hospitals run by NHS trusts apparently get financial benefits if they increase the number of terminally-ill patients who are put onto the so-called “Care Pathways”. Once someone is “put on a Care Pathway” they are effectively written off. Medication may be withdrawn, water and food may be withheld and any chance of continuing to live or of any recovery are removed – intentionally – from the equation.  “Care” is provided but now with the intention of causing death. The sooner such patients die the better the use of resources!

I cannot see how any “Care Pathway” where there is an incentive to ensure that a patient dies and dies quickly can be anything other than an intentional termination of life. But is it euthanasia or is it murder or is it an execution?

Where the patient truly wishes to die it is effectively euthanasia. But where the patient would wish to live if he could only get better we get into a dangerous zone between euthanasia and execution. Can all attempts to “make the patient better” be abandoned by a hospital because someone other than the patient has decided that the patient cannot get better? When it is relatives who are pushing to get the patient onto a “Care Pathway” it comes close to murder. And when it is the hospitals or the hospital staff who are “incentivised” to get the patient onto the “Care Pathway” it gets close to being an execution. The decision to put someone onto a “Care Pathway” is itself then an irrevocable sentence of death. Why not – having passed sentence –  just give them a quick, quiet lethal injection after putting them on a “Care Pathway”? Why go through the charade of care while ensuring the patients rapid demise? The 33 hours these patients survive on average after being put on a “Care Pathway” could be reduced to zero. Why not provide incentives to hospitals to

  • maximise the number of patients put onto a “Care Pathway”, and then
  • minimise the amount of time spent on such a Pathway?

This could get rid of many hundreds – if not thousands – of problematic and elderly patients who only absorb resources, no longer provide any useful contribution to society and are just a pain for their relatives. It would not be a very large step to converting the corpses to Soylent Green.

The Telegraph: 

The majority of hospitals in England are being given financial rewards for placing terminally-ill patients on a controversial “pathway” to death…

Almost two thirds of NHS trusts using the Liverpool Care Pathway have received payouts totalling millions of pounds for hitting targets related to its use, research for The Daily Telegraph shows.

The figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal the full scale of financial inducements for the first time.

They suggest that about 85 per cent of trusts have now adopted the regime, which can involve the removal of hydration and nutrition from dying patients.

More than six out of 10 of those trusts – just over half of the total – have received or are due to receive financial rewards for doing so amounting to at least £12million. 

At many hospitals more than 50 per cent of all patients who died had been placed on the pathway and in one case the proportion of forseeable deaths on the pathway was almost nine out of 10.

Last night the Department of Health insisted that the payments could help ensure that people were “treated with dignity in their final days and hours”.

But opponents described it as “absolutely shocking” that hospitals could be paid to employ potentially “lethal” treatments. ……


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