Could Oklahoma begin using nitrogen for executions after Alabama? Not yet

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is interested in Alabama’s use of nitrogen gas to carry out death penalty executions, but they’re not ready to follow suit — just yet.

“I have a continuously watchful eye on the progress Alabama is making with this new method,” Executive Director Steven Harpe told The Oklahoman in a statement.

Harpe's comment echoes what he said four months ago, indicating he’d like to see nitrogen hypoxia used in a series of executions elsewhere before Oklahoma makes any changes. “We are interested in the option of nitrogen hypoxia because it releases the state from the burden of the three-drug protocol.”

Harpe said if the method is proven to be safe, effective and easy to administer, the availability of nitrogen reduces the strain of locating and obtaining the sedatives and paralytics for the current protocol, which is lethal injection with three approved drugs.

People stand outside the Governor's Mansion during a prayer vigil against the death penalty in 2023 in Oklahoma City.
People stand outside the Governor's Mansion during a prayer vigil against the death penalty in 2023 in Oklahoma City.

What would need to happen for Oklahoma to begin using nitrogen in executions?

The state first added nitrogen gas to its capital punishment list in 2015 as a second alternative to lethal drug injection and before electrocution and firing squad. However, in 2019, the department was having trouble finding a manufacturer of a nitrogen delivery device willing to sell it for use in executions, The Oklahoman reported.

Kay Thompson, state Corrections Department chief of media relations, said the state Legislature would need to approve nitrogen hypoxia as the first death penalty method, instead of the second. There would also need to be a protocol written on how to implement the procedure, which is not currently in place.

She added Oklahoma Corrections Department officials have not spoken to Alabama post execution, but did speak to them about the method. Oklahoma could model its protocol off Alabama’s, but would need to research and create its own based on the state's history with executions.

More: Nitrogen hypoxia: Why Alabama's execution of Kenneth Smith stirs ethical controversy.

Critics of Oklahoma’s death penalty condemned the nitrogen method as experimental when the state explored the alternative in 2019. The same concerns were voiced with Alabama’s execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith. As reported by USA Today, eyewitnesses to the execution said Smith “appeared to convulse and shake vigorously for about four minutes…” and it was another “two to three minutes before he appeared to lose consciousness…”

Kris Steele, executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), said his initial reaction to Alabama carrying out the method was immense concern. Whether a person is for or against the death penalty, instituting methods that are unproven and could potentially cause undue punishment or cruelty is unconstitutional and concerning from a humanity standpoint, he said.

“We are literally talking about taking a person's life and there's no opportunity to undo that,” Steele said. “I think that we would want to use as much caution and be as methodical as possible in deliberating this decision before we would just hastily rush into this kind of activity just because somebody else has already done it.”

Oklahoma paused capital punishment for five years from 2015 to 2020 due to drug mix-ups, The Oklahoman reported in 2020. A report from the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission in 2017 recommended a moratorium on executions “until significant reforms are accomplished” and said, “It is undeniable that innocent people have been sentenced to death in Oklahoma.”

State Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, said he supports the death penalty and would listen to pros and cons and what experts say in an open conversation where everyone can attend. He added a caveat though, noting the court system needs scrutiny.

“I support the death penalty big time, but I don’t support a corrupt system,” he said.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Nitrogen is an alternative for Oklahoma executions, but not first pick