Arizona Prepares for Executions With Gas Used in Holocaust Death Camps

Arizona reportedly has “refurbished” its gas chamber and has spent more than $2,000 to acquire ingredients to execute prisoners with cyanide gas, the same gas used by the Nazis to murder more than one million men, women, and children during the Holocaust.

Records obtained by The Guardian show that the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry purchased a solid brick of potassium cyanide in December for $1,530. The state also purchased supplies of additional ingredients for producing hydrogen cyanide gas, including sodium hydroxide pellets and sulfuric acid. Initially developed as an insecticide and known by the Nazis as “Zyklon B,” the gas was the signature method by which the Nazis carried out their genocide against European Jews, the Roma, and local populations at the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and other concentration camps and killed Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Nazi resistance fighters.

Executions in Arizona have been on hold since 2014, when the state botched the lethal-injection execution of Joseph Wood. As Arizona officials attempt to restart executions, they spent $1.5 million to obtain lethal injection drugs, even as the Department of Corrections faces a budget crisis.

In August, the state tested its gas chamber, built in 1949, to determine whether it can be used for executions. After initial tests found “slow drainage” and “overflowing,” corrections officials had the seals and gaskets replaced. Corrections staff then tested the chamber for airtightness by passing the flame of a candle slowly near the seals of the chamber.

Arizona last used its gas chamber in 1999, for the execution of Walter LaGrand. Eleven people in five states were executed in the gas chamber since executions were permitted to resume in 1976. LaGrand’s was the last execution by lethal gas anywhere in the United States. The Tucson Citizen reported “agonizing choking and gasping” during the execution. “The witness room fell silent as a mist of gas rose, much like steam in a shower, and Walter LaGrand became enveloped in a cloud of cyanide vapor,” the Citizen reported. “He began coughing violently — three or four loud hacks — and made a gagging sound before falling forward.” LeGrand took 18 minutes to die.

“Despite Arizona’s efforts to present their planned execution method as acceptable and reputable,” The Jerusalem Post reported, “the name Zyklon B is inextricably linked to the horrors of the past, when over a million Jews and others were murdered in Nazi gas chambers using the lethal gas between 1942 and 1945.”

Death Penalty Information Center executive director Robert Dunham told The Guardian: “You have to wonder what Arizona was thinking in believing that in 2021 it is acceptable to execute people in a gas chamber with cyanide gas. Did they have anybody study the history of the Holocaust?”

Arizona’s actions provoked a sharp international response.

Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee, told the New York Times, “For Auschwitz survivors, the world will finally come apart at the seams, if in any place on this earth the use of Zyklon B in the killing of human beings is considered again.” In a June 2 interview, he said, “In their eyes, this is a disgraceful act that is unworthy of any democracy and, moreover, insults the victims of the Holocaust.”

Austrian ambassador to the United States, Martin Weiss, tweeted: “The death penalty is in and of itself a cruel and unusual punishment. Getting ready to use Zyklon B for executions is just beyond the pale.” German and Austrian news headlines, the New York Times said, “reflected a sense of disbelief and dismay.”

Arizona requires prisoners facing execution to choose between the gas chamber and lethal injection. In the words of Joseph Perkovich, a lawyer for death-row prisoner Frank Atwood, “neither option is tenable.” If they make no designation, they are executed by lethal injection. Atwood is one of the two Arizona prisoners for whom state officials are seeking execution dates.

On April 6, 2021, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced that he is asking the Arizona Supreme Court to set a briefing schedule and issue execution warrants for Atwood and Clarence Dixon. Attorneys for Dixon and Atwood issued statements sharply challenging the attorney general’s representations concerning the cases. Dixon, they say, is severely mentally ill and also has serious physical disabilities, and his mental status cannot be properly assessed while pandemic-related concerns limit experts’ ability to travel and to conduct necessary in-person evaluations. Atwood maintains his innocence, but his defense lawyers’ ability to investigate and present evidence supporting his innocence claim has been impeded by the pandemic.

The Arizona Supreme Court granted Brnovich’s motions on May 21, directing the attorney general to file a motion seeking an execution warrant for Atwood no later than July 21 and for Dixon no later than August 12. Atwood has until August 4 to respond, and state prosecutors have until August 11 to reply. Dixon has until August 26 to respond, and state prosecutors have until September 2 to reply.

Sources

Ed Pilkington, Arizona refur­bish­es’ its gas cham­ber to pre­pare for exe­cu­tions, doc­u­ments reveal, The Guardian, May 28, 2021; Jerusalem Post Staff, State of Arizona to begin using Zyklon B to exe­cute inmates on death row, Jerusalem Post, May 30, 2021; Michael Daventry, Arizona inmates to face exe­cu­tion with same gas as Auschwitz’, Jewish News, May 28, 2021; Times of Israel Staff, Arizona said look­ing to restart exe­cu­tions with gas used by Nazis at Auschwitz, The Times of Israel, June 1, 2021; Meryl Kornfield, Arizona plans to exe­cute pris­on­ers with a lethal gas the Nazis used at Auschwitz, Washington Post, June 2, 2021; Christine Hauser, Outrage Greets Report of Arizona Plan to Use Holocaust Gas’ in Executions, New York Times, June 2, 2021; EJ Montini, Is Arizona copy­ing a Nazi method for car­ry­ing out exe­cu­tions?, Arizona Republic, June 1, 2021; Brett Wilkins, Arizona Plans Executions With Same Gas Used by Nazis at Auschwitz, Common Dreams, June 1, 2021; Jimmy Jenkins, Arizona Supreme Court Sets Execution Warrant Briefing Schedules For 2 Death Row Prisoners, KJZZ Arizona NPR, May 25, 2021; Patty Machelor, LaGrand: 18 min­utes to die, Tucson Citizen, March 41999.

Photo: Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation & Reentry.

[Correction: The orig­i­nal ver­sion of this post­ing had the same brief­ing sched­ule for Atwood and Dixon. It has been cor­rect to reflect that there are dif­fer­ent brief­ing sched­ules for each case.]