Arizona gas chamber

On April 16, 2024, the Louisiana Senate Judiciary B Committee unanimously voted to advance a bill that would remove nitrogen hypoxia from the state’s available methods of execution. Introduced by state Senator Katrina Jackson-Andrews, Senate Bill 430 is supported by the Jews Against Gassing Coalition, an organization consisting of Jewish Louisiana residents who oppose state-sanctioned gas executions. “We recognize, of course, that the gassing of innocent victims in the Holocaust is quite different from executing a convicted criminal,” said Naomi Yavneh-Klos, a member of the coalition and Loyola University professor. “But for Jewish people, and really anyone with knowledge of the Holocaust, the historical association with this execution method is chilling and undeniable, eliciting a visceral response that evokes not justice, your goal, but genocide.”

Nitrogen hypoxia was quickly approved for use in Louisiana in a special legislative session called by Governor Jeff Landry last month. During this same session, the legislature also adopted electrocution as a method of execution, while passing secrecy laws to protect those involved in carrying out an execution and the procurement of any materials needed.

Mirroring the efforts of many other Jewish communities, the Jews Against Gassing Coalition has spearheaded local efforts to stop “the State of Louisiana [from] utilizing a method similar to the method of extermination used by Nazi Germany to annihilate millions of [their] Jewish ancestors.” In 2022, the ACLU of Arizona, on behalf of Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix, sued the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry (ADCRR), asking the Maricopa Superior Court to rule that the use of cyanide gas violates the Arizona Constitution’s protection against cruel and unusual punishments. In 1992, Arizona voters largely voted against the use of lethal gas for executions, but those sentenced to death prior to the reversal date fell under the old law which permitted lethal gas as an execution method. “Under no circumstances should the same method of execution used to murder over one million people, including Jews, during the Holocaust be used in the execution of people on death row,” said Jared Keenan, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Arizona. “Arizona has acknowledged the horrors of cyanide gas as a method of execution and eliminates it in all but a narrow set of cases — it’s time the court eliminates the use of cyanide gas for execution once and for all. Regardless of where people stand on the matter of capital punishment, it’s clear that use of the barbaric practice is cruel and must be abolished.”

Arizona’s last execution by cyanide gas took place in 1999, when the state executed Walter LaGrand. Those who witnessed Mr. LaGrand’s execution reported watching an “agonizing and excruciating” scene in which it took nearly 20 minutes for him to die. Since then, just one individual nationally has been put to death using gas. In January 2024, the state of Alabama executed Kenneth Smith for a 1998 murder-for-hire using nitrogen gas. According to media witnesses, Mr. Smith “writhed violently” on the gurney before “gasping and struggling for air.”