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Oklahoma approves execution by nitrogen gas as a backup to lethal injections

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The state's lethal injection protocol is under review

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Yesterday, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin signed into law a bill that approves the use of nitrogen gas for executions in the state. The method, which would effectively asphyxiate death row inmates by forcing them to breathe pure nitrogen through a gas mask, is meant to be the primary alternative to lethal injection, The Washington Post reports.

The primary method is still lethal injection

Fallin and other supporters of the procedure say it's pain-free and effective, noting that the nitrogen would render inmates unconscious within ten seconds and kill them in minutes. It's also cheap: state representatives say the method only requires a nitrogen tank and a gas mask, but financial analysts say its impossible to give precise figures, the Post reports.

Oklahoma's primary execution method is still lethal injection, but the state's procedure is currently under review by the Supreme Court. Earlier this week, Tennessee suspended executions statewide following challenges to its own lethal injection protocol.

The new bill accounts for the possibility that, even if lethal injection is ruled constitutional, the drugs necessary to perform the procedure may still be unavailable. Ohio recently suspended all of its 2015 executions while it attempts to restock its supply of lethal injection drugs. Last month, the largest group of pharmacists in the US urged its members to refrain from providing prisons with the chemicals used in lethal injections. If Oklahoma cannot use lethal injection for capital punishment, it will turn to the nitrogen method, followed by the electric chair and finally a firing squad if the previous options fail. There are no previous records of a formal nitrogen gas execution, the Post reports.

Opponents of the nitrogen hypoxia bill say no execution is truly painless, and that this decision was rushed through in an effort to pass a law before the Supreme Court's ruling later this month.

"I think that Oklahoma has acted first and thought second in the manner it’s gone about conducting executions," Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center said. "And the hasty manner in which this bill sped into law reflects the same lack of care with which Oklahoma has managed its execution process historically."

No execution can truly be called painless

Dunham told the Post that "the myth [of a] quick, painless and effective" death was once used to champion lethal injection. A botched lethal injection in Oklahoma last April caused an inmate's vein to rupture, which prevented the three-drug cocktail from taking full effect. The nitrogen hypoxia bill will go into effect in November, the Post reports. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections does not yet have a protocol in place for the approved method.