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Death Row Prisoner Told To Choose Between Lethal Injection And Execution Gas Used By Nazis

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockMay 5 2022, 11:25 UTC
The gas chamber hasn't been used by the state since 1999

The gas chamber hasn't been used by the state since 1999. Image credit: Shelka04 at en.wikipedia (CC BY 3.0)

A death row inmate in the US has until May 19 to decide whether to be executed via lethal injection or hydrogen cyanide, a gas used by the Nazis in mass killings during the Holocaust.

Frank Atwood, who is scheduled to be executed on June 8, if no last-minute appeals are successful, faces a choice between two agonizing deaths, according to his lawyers.


"On the one hand is lethal injection, for which the Department is unprepared to proceed and, due to Mr. Atwood’s severe spinal condition, would inflict maximum pain throughout the process. On the other hand is cyanide gas, used by Nazi Germany to exterminate millions in the Holocaust," Joseph Perkovich, one of Atwood's lawyers, said in a statement.

"By designating cyanide gas, the Department is cynically forcing Mr. Atwood to accept the torture of a lethal injection, playing out a version of the grim fate that befell the last person subjected to that method in Arizona, who was strapped to the execution table for over two hours, hopelessly gasping for air over 600 times."

In 2014, the last execution via lethal injection in Arizona saw death row inmate Joseph Wood injected with 15 times the dose called for by the state's execution protocols, over 15 separate injections, in order to end his life. Though the state claimed Wood was comatose, medical experts told The Guardian in 2014 that it was impossible to rule out that he was in pain during the two-hour execution.

Despite this, Atwood's lawyers are urging him to opt for this method over hydrogen cyanide, known as Zyklon B, known for causing agonizing deaths, as it did during the Holocaust.


“Cyanide is as bad as everybody thinks it is – there’s a reason the Nazis used it: it’s a horrific way to die,” Perkovich told The Guardian. “We are now in the position of having to dissuade our client from opting to go into a cyanide gas chamber, and we have 15 days to do it.”

The move to bring back Zyklon B as an execution method – not used in over 20 years – caused a lot of controversy when it was announced in 2021 that Arizona planned to reintroduce it and had already spent $2,000 dollars procuring the ingredients for cyanide gas. The method had not been used since 1999, when Walter LaGrand was executed, taking 18 minutes of "agonizing choking and gagging" before his heart gave out. Similar accounts of agony are seen in other accounts of executions by the method.

"Don’s body started convulsing violently and his arms strained against the straps. His face and body turned a deep red and the veins in his temple and neck began to bulge until I thought they might explode," lawyer Jim Belanger,  who witnessed the execution of an inmate via gas chamber in 1992, wrote of the death of Don Harding.

The gas took 10 minutes and 31 seconds to kill Harding. "I couldn’t believe that it was lasting so long," Belanger wrote. "My knees shook so badly I thought I might collapse."


Atwood's lawyers are now proposing that he should be offered the choice of firing squad, as a more humane alternative to the options of a painful death via lethal injection, and an even more painful death via a gas chosen for mass killings by the Nazis.

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