Arizona Plans Executions with Gas Used by Nazis at Auschwitz


The state of Arizona is getting its gas chamber ready to execute people using hydrogen cyanide, the deadly gas used by the Nazis at Auschwitz and other extermination camps during the Holocaust.

The Guardian reported last week that it had obtained documents revealing that Arizona’s department of corrections has spent more than $2,000 to purchase the ingredients to make cyanide gas—including a solid brick of potassium cyanide purchased in December for $1,530 and the sodium hydroxide pellets and sulfuric acid that are used to generate the lethal gas.

The state’s 72-year-old gas chamber has been “refurbished,” the Guardian reports. “Operability” tests were conducted last August, using water in place of the deadly chemicals and a smoke grenade to simulate gas, documents show. After prison officials reportedly checked for gas seepages by holding a candle up to the sealed windows and door to see if the flame flickered, the gas chamber was declared “operationally ready” in December.

The Nazis used hydrogen cyanide under the trade name Zyklon B to kill more than a million people in gas chambers in Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Lethal gas has also produced some of the most horribly botched executions in U.S. history.

Arizona’s gas chamber has not been used in more than two decades. The last time the state gassed someone to death was in 1999, when Walter LaGrand suffered “agonizing choking and gagging” and took 18 minutes to die, according to an eyewitness account. Mr. LaGrand’s was the last execution by lethal gas in the country. 

Seven years earlier, Don Harding’s slow death by cyanide poisoning was so gruesome that Arizona changed the law to offer lethal injection as an alternative to the gas chamber. The state’s gas chamber had not been used in nearly three decades before Mr. Harding’s execution on April 6, 1992. Witnesses said he gasped and shuddered and was not pronounced dead until 10 1/2 minutes after the cyanide gas was deployed.

That same month, California carried out its first execution in 25 years, taking 10 minutes to kill Robert Alton Harris in its gas chamber.

Executions have been on hold in Arizona since the state botched the execution of Joseph Wood in 2014. After the state injected him with multiple doses of a secret, experimental combination of drugs, witnesses reported that Mr. Wood gasped and snorted more than 600 times. One witness said he was gulping for air the way a fish does when it is taken out of water. Mr. Wood suffered for two hours before he was declared dead.

Arizona executed people by hanging until 1930, when Eva Dugan was decapitated during her execution. The state adopted the gas chamber in 1933.

During World War II, concentration camps like Auschwitz were equipped with gas chambers that used pellets of Zyklon B. From 1943 to 1944, an average of 6,000 Jews were killed each day at Auschwitz.

Arizona’s decision to use the same gas that was deployed in Nazi gas chambers has been condemned around the globe. 

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,” The Jerusalem Post reported.

“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,” Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee, told The New York Times. “In their eyes, this is a disgraceful act that is unworthy of any democracy and, moreover, insults the victims of the Holocaust.”

Austria’s ambassador to the United States, Martin Weiss, wrote on Twitter that the death penalty was “itself a cruel and unusual punishment. Getting ready to use Zyklon B for executions is just beyond the pale.”

Arizona is preparing to use cyanide gas to kill 65-year-old Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon, also 65. The state has not yet scheduled execution dates.

Mr. Atwood’s attorney, Joseph Perkovich, told the Guardian that the corrections department purchased the wrong chemical compound—potassium cyanide instead of the sodium cyanide that the state’s execution protocol requires. “This is not a small detail,” he said. “The specific compound is vitally important.”

Six other states permit executions by lethal gas: Alabama, California, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama recently authorized executions by nitrogen gas, a method that has never been used before anywhere in the world.