GAS CHAMBER COLLATERAL - In its euthanasia guidelines, the American Veterinary Medical Association advises against the use of nitrogen gas to kill rats. And yet Alabama is pushing ahead with plans to experiment with using the gas to execute its condemned.
Even defendants convicted of the cruelest of murders cannot, except for cynically and spitefully, be said to be rats. Considered calmly and rationally, men and women condemned to die, no matter the heinousness of their actions, remain flesh-and-blood human beings, which many, including myself, would say were created in God’s image—a fact that remains no matter how seemingly irreparably flawed they have since become.
Of course there will be those who disagree. There will be those who would insist that some, or even all, convicted criminals are rats, or simply are not human enough to warrant a serious consideration of the morality of “trying out” execution by nitrogen gas. But even among that group, it would be hard to find any decent human being who would be comfortable inflicting the related risks on spiritual advisors who are present in the death chamber.
Many are familiar with Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean’s account of her experience ministering to men sentenced to death. But one need not read the book, or even watch the film or the new opera by the same name, to understand that spiritual advisors to the condemned are not rats. And they should not have to feel compelled because of sacred, profoundly held religious obligation, to risk nitrogen gas exposure.
Since practically as far back as this country has existed, religious leaders have provided counsel to death-sentenced prisoners—a fact acknowledged in 2022 by Chief Justice John Roberts. These individuals provide counsel and company up to and during the moment of execution. They do so out of a deeply felt sense of duty. Reverend Darryl Gray, the senior pastor at Greater Fairfax Missionary Baptist Church, in St. Louis, recently described how he felt duty-bound to minister to Kevin Johnson when he was executed in Missouri, in November 2022, “because Kevin’s life was worth it, the sacredness of human life was worth it.”
At the same event, Reverend Melissa Potts-Bowers, a spiritual advisor to Michael Tisius—executed by Missouri on June 6, 2023—said: “Being present, being there, standing with those who are oppressed in one of the most important things we can do. So for me, remaining in that chamber is one of the most important privileges for us to protect.”
Alabama’s recently released, heavily-redacted nitrogen gassing protocol has no respect for the godly, spiritual work people like Sister Prejean, Reverend Gray, and Reverend Potts-Bowers do.
The protocol mandates: “No spiritual advisor or alternate spiritual advisor shall be allowed in the execution chamber unless they review and sign the spiritual advisor nitrogen hypoxia acknowledgment form.”
Appraising the form “containing the explanation of risks,” one’s attention is alarmingly drawn to its only bolded language: “in the highly unlikely event that the hose supplying breathing gas to the mask were to detach, an area of free-flowing nitrogen gas could result, creating a small area of risk (approximately two (2) feet) from the outflow. Additionally, overpressure could result in a small area of nitrogen gas that displaces the oxygen in the area around the condemned inmate’s face and/or head.”
One has to wonder why the risks would merit bolding if in fact they’re so “highly unlikely.”
Moreover, let’s recall when Alabama officials opine in bureaucratic forms about how “likely” a nitrogen gassing execution is to go wrong that (1) a state-sanctioned nitrogen gassing execution has never ever been attempted throughout the course of humanity—reason enough not to start now—and so, anyone proclaiming they know how likely certain problems are to arise once it’s attempted are like the people you hear about trying to sell folks bridges in Brooklyn. And (2) let’s not forget, as I’ve had the occasion to opine way too often: Alabama has an unfortunate track record of bungled executions.
Anytime Alabama has an execution, given both its recent and lengthy histories of botched and patently torturous executions, anyone who pays attention to such things knows: it feels like the result of a coin-toss, either a heads or tails, could just as accurately predict whether a palpable level of suffering will be displayed by the prisoner. Spiritual advisors, men and women dedicated to a calling, should not be made to feel duty-bound—being the honorable, good people they most often are—to have to risk their own health, perhaps even their lives, so Alabama can experiment with a freakish, ghoulish, novel, and immoral way to end a human life.
*Note, this piece originally appeared on Jurist: Alabama to Subject Death Row Spiritual Advisors to Nitrogen Gas Risks. For proper citation: Stephen A. Cooper, “Alabama to Subject Death Row Spiritual Advisors to Nitrogen Gas Risks,” Jurist, October 20, 2023.
(Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public. defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on “X”/Twitter @SteveCooperEsq)