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Arizona offers gas chamber execution to ex-Jewish death row inmate

Frank Atwood, sentenced to death in 1987 for murder of an 8-year-old girl, is son of Jewish woman who fled Austria; local Jewish community unsuccessfully appeals use of Zyklon-B

This undated file photo provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections shows Frank Atwood, who was sentenced to death in the 1984 killing of 8-year-old Vicki Lynn Hoskinson in Pima County. The Arizona Supreme Court has set a deadline of July 21, 2021, for prosecutors to request a warrant that would trigger Atwood's execution. Atwood is among the first death row prisoners in Arizona to be eyed for execution since 2014. (Arizona Department of Corrections via AP, File)
This undated file photo provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections shows Frank Atwood, who was sentenced to death in the 1984 killing of 8-year-old Vicki Lynn Hoskinson in Pima County. The Arizona Supreme Court has set a deadline of July 21, 2021, for prosecutors to request a warrant that would trigger Atwood's execution. Atwood is among the first death row prisoners in Arizona to be eyed for execution since 2014. (Arizona Department of Corrections via AP, File)

WASHINGTON — The state of Arizona has offered a death row inmate, whose Jewish mother fled the Nazis, the option of being executed in a gas chamber with the same chemical used in German death camps.

On Tuesday, the Arizona Supreme Court set June 8 for the execution of Frank Atwood, sentenced to death in 1987 for the murder of an eight-year-old girl. He was given two weeks to choose between lethal injection or being gassed with lethal chemicals.

The offer comes as conservative US states, facing difficulties around lethal injections, are looking to the past for alternative ways to carry out executions of their death row inmates, including gas chambers and electric chairs.

According to his lawyer, prison authorities in the southwestern state are considering using hydrogen cyanide, the main component of Zyklon-B, a chemical infamously associated with the Holocaust.

Atwood’s mother was Jewish and had fled Austria in 1939 to escape the Nazis, lawyer Joe Perkovich said.

Atwood has since been baptized in the Greek Orthodox Christian church.

Only seven US states still allow executions by gas chambers, but none have used the method since 1999. Most have decided to only conduct executions through the injection of lethal chemicals.

Illustrative: This is the interior of the gas chamber at San Quentin prison in California, pictured January 14, 1972. (AP Photo)

But doubts about the legality of lethal injections — suspected of causing unlawful suffering to the condemned — abound, and pharmaceutical companies have begun refusing to supply the necessary chemicals, leading to a sharp decline in the death penalty throughout the country.

Arizona has not carried out any executions since 2014, when an inmate suffered agonizing convulsions for two hours after being injected with a lethal chemical cocktail.

State authorities, however, have decided to re-start the practice this year.

Before Atwood, officials had planned to execute Clarence Dixon — convicted of killing a student — on May 11. He, too, had been given two weeks to choose between the gas chamber and lethal injection. His silence was considered the same as choosing the needle.

In February, the local Jewish community had filed a complaint, ultimately unsuccessful, to prevent authorities from using hydrogen cyanide.

“It is appalling that Arizona would choose to use Zyklon-B for this purpose — the very same chemical compound that was used by the Nazis in Auschwitz to murder more than one million people,” said Tim Eckstein, head of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix.

Cans of Zyklon B on display at Auschwitz. (Photo credit: CC BY Jaysmark, Flickr)

In April, South Carolina also sparked controversy by offering a death row inmate the choice between the firing squad and the electric chair. A week before his scheduled execution, the state Supreme Court decided to temporarily stay his death sentence while it and other courts considered more legal challenges.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report

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