'Nothing short of horrified': Jewish groups alarmed by Arizona's potential gas executions

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Janice Friebaum can trace family members who were murdered at the Nazi death camp of Treblinka — two grandparents, three great-grandparents, aunts, uncles and countless cousins — among the millions of Jews killed in gas chambers during the Holocaust.

The politicization of the Holocaust amid the coronavirus pandemic has only undermined the barbarity inflicted on the victims of genocide, she said, adding that Americans may become "desensitized by false analogies" like equating mass murder with mask-wearing mandates.

But when she learned her home state of Arizona reportedly refurbished its gas chamber for executions, a method of death last used there more than two decades ago, she decided it warranted speaking out.

"Uniformly, Holocaust survivors and their descendants are nothing short of horrified of this form of execution being utilized," said Friebaum, vice president of the Phoenix Holocaust Association, a nonprofit group that documents experiences of survivors and educates about genocide.

Related video: South Carolina set to legalize execution by firing squad

The gas chambers were a "Nazi innovation, and it was positively inhumane," she said. "To think our 'civilized society' today in the state of Arizona would utilize this Nazi innovation, I believe, is tantamount to giving posthumous approval to the evils conducted by the Nazis. We're basically saying what the Nazis did was OK."

The gas chamber's upgrade at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence, southeast of Phoenix, has struck a nerve with Jewish organizations, which have grown increasingly vocal in their opposition to what they describe as a particularly macabre method of execution.

The American Jewish Committee, one of the nation's oldest Jewish advocacy groups, said it was especially troubled by the state's purchase of materials to make hydrogen cyanide gas, which was part of a pesticide known as Zyklon B that the Nazis used in Auschwitz. Details about the state's plan were first reported by the Guardian newspaper in May.

"Arizona's decision to employ Zyklon B gas as a means of execution defies belief," the committee said in a statement last week. "Whether or not one supports the death penalty as a general matter, there is general agreement in American society that a gas devised as a pesticide, and used to eliminate Jews, has no place in the administration of criminal justice."

It's unclear why the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry has appeared to revive the gas chamber option for executions. In a statement to NBC News, the department said it and the state attorney general's office are "prepared to fulfill its constitutional obligation, carry out legally imposed court orders, and deliver justice to the victims' families."

But corrections officials note that under the law, only death row inmates who committed their crimes before Nov. 23, 1992, have the option of selecting either gas inhalation for their execution or the state's default method of lethal injection. Since 1976, gas chamber executions have been used 11 times by various states, including California and Mississippi, according to the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center.

Arizona's gas chamber was built in 1949 and has been used twice: once in 1992 for the execution of Don Harding, who was convicted of murder, and in 1999 for the execution of Walter LaGrand, also convicted of murder. The use of cyanide gas on LaGrand, a German citizen, stoked outrage in his home country, which has no death penalty. His brother, who was convicted of the same crime and also sentenced to death, opted for lethal injection.

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Arizona has not executed an inmate since 2014, when a lethal injection procedure described by some as a "botched" operation ended after the prisoner gasped for two hours.

State Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, notified the state Supreme Court in April that he will seek execution warrants in two cases, both of which involve murders that took place before 1992. While Brnovich announced last week he will run next year for a U.S. Senate seat, he previously said he wants to "ensure" that the 21 people on Arizona's death row whose appeals have been exhausted are executed before his term ends in 2023.

"Capital punishment is the law in Arizona and the appropriate response to those who commit the most shocking and vile murders," he said in a statement. "This is about the administration of justice and ensuring the last word still belongs to the innocent victims who can no longer speak for themselves."

A spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, told The Associated Press that he 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."

The Arizona Supreme Court last month set timetables for the two executions that Brnovich is currently seeking, and has given dates in August and September to acquire responses from defense attorneys and related replies.

While the two dozen states that have death penalty laws largely held off on executions during the pandemic, Texas in May became the first state in 10 months to resume capital punishment activities.

In recent years, state executions have remained at record lows amid a shortage of lethal injection drugs and waning public support for capital punishment. But some states are reviving other methods.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, signed legislation in May that adds death by firing squad as an alternative to the electric chair because of a lack of lethal injection drugs.

Last week, Alabama corrections officials told a federal judge that the agency is close to finishing construction of a system that would deploy nitrogen gas for executions, a method that proponents believe is more humane but remains untested.

Arizona has struggled carrying out the death penalty in recent years because of the lack of lethal injection drugs, but said in March it had obtained a shipment of pentobarbital, a sedative that slows the activity of the brain and the nervous system, the AP reported.

In the case of lethal gas executions, accounts from witnesses have described how levers are used to drop a sodium cyanide mixture into a pot of sulfuric acid below the inmate, who's strapped into a chair.

Tempe lawyer Jim Belanger, who witnessed the execution of his client, Harding, in 1992, said white fumes rose from the metal box on the floor and Harding's face turned red and contorted as he gulped and gasped. He said Harding writhed in pain for the majority of the 10½ minutes he was alive.

Belanger said Friday that he remains against capital punishment, but said states "should find a humane way of administering" executions.

"Our country has called out others that violate international law and human rights when they use gas or murder millions like in the Holocaust," he added. "In my mind, we have committed our own atrocities with gas."

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