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Death penalty: how the United States abandoned gas chambers as a method of execution

How do you most cleanly and least painfully kill someone on death row? In the United States, the question arose from the end of the 19th century.

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Death penalty: how the United States abandoned gas chambers as a method of execution

How do you most cleanly and least painfully kill someone on death row? In the United States, the question arose from the end of the 19th century. In the 1920s, executioners seemed to respond by developing a new method. On February 8, 1924, exactly 100 years ago, a murderer died in a gas chamber for the first time. The method has since been abandoned, although it remains legally possible in some states. However, less than 20 years before its industrialization by the Nazi regime during the genocide, the gas chamber appeared promising to its defenders.

After independence in 1776, hanging was initially the most commonly used means of execution. But from the second half of the 19th century, “executions were increasingly punctuated by incidents,” explains Simon Grivet, historian of the United States, specialist in law and justice. Death is sometimes very long or the body decapitated by the rope. From 1890, the electric chair appeared.

It was after the First World War that the gas chamber was imagined. Combat gases were used extensively on the European front. The gases, sometimes dangerous, are also known in the Western States for agriculture in particular, to grow oranges and lemons, but also in the mining industry to extract gold. Fatal accidents are also recurrent.

Also read: What is nitrogen execution, tested for the first time in the United States?

A gas chamber was then designed in the state of Nevada for the first time. “There is then a fantasy of immediate death, with a cloud of gas, which causes the condemned to fall into unconsciousness and die without pain,” explains Simon Grivet. But the reality is more complex. Sentenced to death for murder, Gee Jon, a Chinese national, first suffered an attempted execution in his cell while he slept. The part not being airtight, the gas escapes and the execution fails.

A gas chamber is then made. On the morning of February 8, at 9:40 a.m., the gas was sent but Gee Jon continued to move for 6 minutes, before becoming completely still after 10 minutes. And the room where the witnesses witnessed the last moments of the condemned man was evacuated by the prison director after a smell, possibly of cyanide, spread there.

Despite this initial mixed experience, the method will nevertheless find an echo in several states, mainly in the West. “In California in particular, a prison director who entered politics campaigned for this method which was adopted in 1937,” says Simon Grivet. A watertight metal cabin, with windows, is built. “To be able to execute two people at the same time, two seats are installed there with vases of hydrochloric acid underneath, in which cyanide eggs are immersed to make hydrogen cyanide,” also explains the historian.

The gas chamber as a method of execution will remain essentially the same until the end of the century. It should be noted that the gas is invisible, “unlike the cinema scenes which have shaped the American imagination”, specifies the specialist. Among them, the killing of a murderess in the famous film I want to live, released in 1957 in the context of a major social debate on the constitutionality of the death penalty across the Atlantic. Or the execution in thick smoke of a woman played by Julia Robert, and saved at the last minute by Bruce Willis, in the film The Player.

Surprisingly, genocide does not immediately call into question this method of execution. The death enterprise of the Third Reich, however, used Zyklon-B, the main element of which is hydrogen cyanide. But after all, work around the memory of Hitler's gas chambers only began in the 1960s. The Eichmann trial served as an electroshock, before major documentation works, such as the film Shoah , do not reveal the extent of the genocidal system.

“But at this moment, the gas executions stop because the great debate on the constitutionality of the death penalty has begun,” recalls Simon Grivet. This debate culminated in 1977 with the re-authorization of the death penalty by the Supreme Court after a moratorium begun in 1963. At the beginning of the 1990s, in California, the state which used the gas chambers the most, executions then began again. , notably with the death of Robert Harris. “He was the ‘poster boy’ as we say in American, the caricatured villain who coldly and without any remorse shot down two teenagers to steal a car,” explains Simon Grivet.

Finally, “a federal judge declared the gas chamber unconstitutional, specifically emphasizing that this method is unbearable in view of the experience and precise knowledge that we have of the genocide”. A legal battle then began, still in force today, while pharmaceutical laboratories no longer wanted to provide the necessary products. And the method has since fallen into disuse in favor of lethal injection, developed at the end of the 1970s. Now, only seven states authorize the use of lethal gases.

Also read Death penalty: executioner in France, history of a taboo profession

But, in practice, no one has used it since 1999 and the execution of the German Walter LaGrand, in Arizona, who had chosen this method hoping until the last moment for an intervention from the Supreme Court. In 2022, Arizona announced the gas execution of Frank Atwood, convicted in 1987 of the murder of an eight-year-old girl. His lawyer was shown in the case, recalling that the condemned man's mother was Jewish and had fled Austria in 1939 to escape the Nazis. The murderer was ultimately executed by lethal injection.

Very recently, a man who had been sentenced to death in 1996 for the murder of a woman was executed by gas, but this time with nitrogen, a very first. The 58-year-old American inhaled the substance through a mask, not in a room, to deprive his body of oxygen.

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