The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix and two individual taxpayer plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections on February 15, seeking to stop the state of Arizona from using cyanide gas in any executions and prevent the state from using taxpayer dollars on its cyanide gas program.
Last summer, reports that Arizona had refurbished its 72-year-old gas chamber so that it could execute people using hydrogen cyanide, the deadly gas used by the Nazis at Auschwitz and other extermination camps during the Holocaust, sparked international condemnation.
“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.”
The American Jewish Committee, one of the nation’s oldest Jewish advocacy groups, firmly denounced Arizona’s plan. In a statement on June 7, 2021, it wrote:
[T]here is something profoundly wrong when a state is so anxious to execute people, who in any event can be incapacitated by incarcerating them forever, that it is prepared to resort to a method of execution that inevitably, inextricably, and forever is linked to the worst outrages of human history.
The lawsuit “seek[s] to prevent the grievous moral and constitutional injury of taxing Arizonans, including victims of the Holocaust, and effectively forcing them to subsidize and relive unnecessarily the same form of cruelty used in World War II atrocities,” according to the complaint.
It asks the court to declare the use of cyanide gas as a form of execution to be cruel and unusual punishment under the Arizona Constitution, citing the horrific executions of Don Harding and Walter LaGrand.
Don Harding’s slow death by cyanide poisoning on April 6, 1992, was so gruesome that Arizona changed the law to offer lethal injection as an alternative to the gas chamber. Witnesses said he gasped and shuddered and was not pronounced dead until 10 1/2 minutes after the cyanide gas was deployed.
In 1999, Mr. 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.
The complaint emphasizes that the horrors of cyanide poisoning— “strenuous convulsions, agonizing gasps, agonized shrieking and thrashing, and one individual in so much pain he repeatedly smashed his head into a metal pole”—are especially traumatizing for Jewish citizens and Holocaust survivors.
In a declaration filed in support of the lawsuit, John Steiner, an employee at California’s San Quentin Prison and Holocaust survivor whose mother was killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, said he flatly refused to serve as a witness for such an execution. “I refused to act as a witness because, among other things, I knew that lethal gas is an excruciatingly painful method of execution. Witnessing a person being gassed to death would bring back horrendous memories of the hideous fate suffered by millions, which included my family, extended relatives, and friends,” he explained. “Even without witnessing the execution, being at San Quentin brought back all the memories, including the ghastly odors of the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.”
“Approximately 80 Holocaust survivors currently call our state their home, and many of these survivors are horrified at being taxed to implement the same machinery of cruelty that was used to murder their loved ones,” Tim Eckstein, chairman of the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix, said in a statement. “It is appalling that Arizona has chosen to use the very same chemical compound that was used by the Nazis in Auschwitz to murder more than one million people.”
Arizona’s primary method of execution is lethal injection, but state law permits people sentenced to death before 1992 to choose to die in the gas chamber.
The attorney general is currently seeking execution dates for two men—Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon—who would be eligible to select execution by lethal gas.
Arizona is one of only seven states that authorize execution by lethal gas under any circumstances, the complaint says.
“Arizona has acknowledged the horrors of cyanide gas as a method of execution and eliminated it in all but a narrow set of cases,” Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Arizona, which represents the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “[I]t’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 this barbaric practice is cruel and must be abolished.”