Nitrogen Asphyxiation: “Are we really going to use it for people?”

John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, supports the flawed criminal justice system that produced Jeffrey Wogenstahl’s death sentence. Murphy is unconcerned that a recent OTSE report about the Ohio death penalty concludes, “the only interest served is that of Ohio prosecutors”.

Far from being troubled about the uneven application of capital punishment from county to county, Murphy defends it. He points out that the local electorate effectively decides how much the death penalty will be applied: he cites death penalty enthusiast, Joe Deters of Hamilton County (the lead prosecutor in Jeff’s case), who “keeps getting elected”.

It is shocking, then, that Deters has committed misconduct in at least one death penalty case. In Jeff’s case a federal judge described prosecutorial misconduct as “wholly improper” and “plain and plentiful”*; the misconduct included being aware that the key witness was lying when he testified that he had never used or sold drugs. And further, unacknowledged misconduct may well have occurred in the case (see here). 

None of this worries Murphy: his only concern is that executions in Ohio are on hold (pharmaceutical companies have refused to authorize their products for lethal injections). Murphy’s solution? A new execution method: he suggests nitrogen gas. He shows little scientific understanding, comparing nitrogen with nitrous oxide, used by dentists. A letter from a physician, Dr. Groner, puts him right:
“Nitrous oxide (N2O) is an anesthetic. Nitrogen (N2) is an inert gas: It has no effect on the human body. That’s like stating that water (H2O) and oxygen (O2) are very similar.” 

Groner continues:
“Ohio has disallowed gas chambers to euthanize animals* — are we really going to use it for people?”

Instead of promoting a highly suspect execution method, Murphy would do better to help produce the changes** needed to reduce the incidence of “premeditated attempted murder” by prosecutors. And the public should consider carefully before voting for overzealous*** prosecutors, like Joe Deters.


* See also the Marshall Project’s A Perfect Killing Device: “…the American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2013 Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals state that nitrogen asphyxiation is not appropriate for dogs, cats, and lab animals, because they become aware that they are being killed while still conscious”. 
** For examples of the most significant recommended changes, see OTSE’s A Relic of the Past: Ohio’s Dwindling Death Penalty”, pp 13 -14.
***‘Overzealous’ is a word often used to describe prosecutors who secure the most death sentences e.g. see Fair Punishment Project’s Too Broken to Fix, Part 1, An In-depth Look at America’s Outlier Death Penalty Counties” pp. 3 – 4, section entitled “Overzealous Prosecutors”.
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