Arizona prison officials have “refurbished” their lethal gas chamber at the Florence state prison and bought the chemicals needed to resume poison gas executions there, using the same hydrogen cyanide employed by the Nazis in Auschwitz during the Holocaust, the Guardian newspaper reported May 28.
Jewish organizations in Arizona and worldwide spoke out in outrage following the report. “We remember what gas chambers did to our own people, and to know it’s going on by our own government, it’s horrific,” Janice Friebaum, vice president of the Phoenix Holocaust Association, told KOLD News 13.
The Nazi German government used the same chemicals — known as Zyclon B — at Auschwitz to murder over a million people, overwhelmingly Jews, in what we know today as the Holocaust. Some 100,000 communists and other anti-fascist resistance fighters, Russian prisoners of war, Roma people, and others were also killed there using the gas. “While there can be no doubt about its effectiveness — the Nazis used it to kill millions of innocent Jews — it is that very effectiveness as an instrument of genocide that makes it utterly inappropriate for use by a civilized state,” the American Jewish Committee said June 7.
For the last few years, as drug companies have stopped making injectable drugs used in executions, the rulers have been scrambling to find new drug cocktails or other methods to put people to death. Last November the U.S. Justice Department changed its execution protocols to allow firing squads, electrocution and poison gas if state governments decide to use them.
Besides Arizona, six states — Alabama, California, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wyoming — have gas chambers, though they use lethal injections as a primary method of execution.
In April, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced the state was seeking to execute two death row inmates, Clarence Dixon and Frank Atwood. The use of hydrogen cyanide for Atwood’s execution would be “particularly horrible because Frank’s mother was an Austrian Jew who escaped the Holocaust at the beginning of World War II,” Natman Schaye, with the Arizona Capital Representation Project, told KOLD News 13.
There are 119 inmates on Arizona death row. The state constitution stipulates lethal injection and the gas chamber as the two accepted methods for administering the death penalty. But gruesome botched executions using both methods ended use of the barbaric penalty since 2014.
In 1999 Walter LaGrand, a German national, took 18 minutes to die in the same gas chamber now set for reuse. He suffered an “agonizing choking and gagging death,” according to an eyewitness account at the time published in the Tucson Citizen. “He began coughing violently” and for minutes “his head and arms twitched.” The gas chamber hasn’t been used since.
After that state authorities relied on lethal injection. But in 2014 it took almost two hours for Joseph Wood to die, even though he was given 15 successive doses of a two-drug cocktail. An eyewitness told the press he counted Wood gasp and gulp 660 times. This led since then to a hiatus in use of the death penalty in Arizona.
“This litany of brutality and torture in Arizona shows why the death penalty needs to be abolished,” Osborne Hart, Socialist Workers Party candidate for Philadelphia district attorney, told the Militant June 13. “The capitalist rulers use it to terrorize and try to intimidate working people, to keep us from organizing and fighting to overturn their criminal system.”