In a bid to jumpstart its long-frozen execution program, the southwestern US state of Arizona has renovated its gas chamber and purchased the ingredients to make cyanide gas, better known as “Zyklon B,” the chemical used by the Nazis at the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and other death camps.
The details were reported over the weekend by the UK’s Guardian news site, based on documents obtained through public records requests.
They showed that Arizona authorities spent some $2,000 purchasing a solid brick of potassium cyanide in December, along with sodium hydroxide pellets and sulfuric acid, which are intended to be used to generate the deadly gas.
The documents also revealed that they had “refurbished” the state’s gas chamber, built in 1949 and mothballed in 1999 after the botched execution of an inmate, Walter LaGrand.
LaGrand died an “agonizing choking and gagging” death, which lasted 18 minutes from the moment the gas entered the chamber until he died, “shrouded in poisonous gas,” according to an eyewitness account published in the Tucson Citizen.
The Guardian said authorities had now used “primitive” means to test the chamber at the state prison in Florence, including using a lit candle to check if the air seals were intact. They also conducted a test with water running through the system and a smoke grenade was thrown inside.
The report also said prison staff engaged in role-play during the tests. Guards acted as inmates who resisted going to their death, screaming: “This is murder,” “I’m innocent,” “You’re putting me down like an animal,” and “This is against everything America stands for.”
The state has been looking for ways to restart its executions, which were put on hold after another botched execution in 2014.
Recent years have seen US states struggling to carry out executions by lethal injection with pharmaceutical companies refusing to sell them the drugs needed to sedate inmates, relax their muscles, and stop their hearts.
Arizona had experimented with an unspecified two-drug combination, but that too was suspended after the 2014 botched execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was given 15 doses of a two-drug combination over two hours before he died.
Some other states have reintroduced execution by firing squad and the electric chair.
Arizona announced in 2019 that it would resume executions, but did not specify how. It currently has 115 inmates on death row.
“Justice must be done for the victims of these heinous crimes and their families. Those who commit the ultimate crime deserve the ultimate punishment,” Attorney General Mark Brnovich said at the time.
The Nazis used Zyklon B to kill millions in death camp gas chambers, which were set up to look like showers for arriving inmates.
One million European Jews were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland in 1940-1945. More than 100,000 others, including non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Nazi resistance fighters, also died there, according to the Auschwitz Museum.
“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,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the Guardian. “Did they have anybody study the history of the Holocaust?”