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Ohio could begin nitrogen gas executions under bill backed by state’s Republican attorney general

This method was used for the first time in Alabama last week. For at least two minutes, Kenneth Eugene Smith appeared to shake and writhe on the gurney

Death Penalty Action Abraham Bonowitz
Co-founder and executive director of Death Penalty Action Abraham Bonowitz, a death penalty abolitionist based in Columbus, Ohio, outside of Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, January 25, 2024.MICAH GREEN (REUTERS)

Ohio’s Republican attorney general put his weight behind a legislative effort Tuesday that would bring nitrogen gas executions to the state, ending a yearslong unofficial death penalty moratorium.

Attorney General Dave Yost made remarks in a news conference about a bill sponsored by Republican state Reps. Brian Stewart and Phil Plummer. It would require that the nitrogen hypoxia pioneered in Alabama last week be used in cases where lethal injection drugs are not available.

Ohio hasn’t executed anyone since 2018. In 2020, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine declared lethal injection “no longer an option,” citing a federal judge’s ruling that the protocol could cause inmates “severe pain and needless suffering.”

Yost has expressed support for the nitrogen gas method used for the first time in Alabama last week, when convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was put to death with nitrogen gas administered through a face mask to deprive him of oxygen.

The execution took about 22 minutes from the time between the opening and closing of curtains to the viewing room. Smith seemed to remain conscious for several minutes. For at least two minutes, he appeared to shake and writhe on the gurney, sometimes pulling against the restraints.

State officials in Alabama said the process was humane and effective, while critics called it cruel and experimental.

“Perhaps nitrogen — widely available and easy to manufacture — can break the impasse of unavailability of drugs for lethal injection,” Yost wrote on X on Friday, the day after Alabama executed Smith. “Death row inmates are in greater danger of dying of old age than their sentence.”

Stewart, Plummer and the executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, Lou Tobin, joined Yost at his news conference Tuesday.

Ohio’s last execution was on July 18, 2018, when Robert Van Hook was put to death by lethal injection for killing a man he met in a Cincinnati bar in 1985. His was the 56th execution since 1999.

The state has since faced challenges finding the chemicals for lethal injection.

Certain lawmakers of both political parties have consistently pushed bills over the years to eliminate the state’s death penalty, including a measure introduced this session.

It’s an option that DeWine — who helped write the state’s current law, enacted in 1981 — has stopped short of supporting.

As time has passed, however, the governor has questioned the death penalty’s value because of the long delays that elapse between crime and punishment. He told The Associated Press during a year-end interview last month that he was not prepared to announce whether he would support an outright repeal.

“I did make it clear a few years ago that we could not carry out executions in the state of Ohio under the current law,” he said. “There’s been really no movement in the state Legislature to come up with a different way of execution.” He said that would have been “the logical thing,” if support were there for continuing the practice.

Ohio has 118 men and one woman on death row, according to the most recent state report.

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