Prison paralytic: Don’t call it a comeback, Zyklon B has been here for 80 years

Alexis Young

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By Alexis Young / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Pinal County, AZ) — Deana Bowdoin was a 21-year-old student at Arizona State University in 1978 when her life was ground to a halt; now the man convicted of her brutal demise is facing his own. Clarence Wayne Dixon will be the first inmate executed on death row since Joseph Rudolph Wood’s III execution in 2014 and Walter LaGrand’s execution in 1999.

LaGrand’s 18 minute death in a Florence state prison gas chamber and Wood’s 57 minute death after a lethal injection of the midazolam sedative and the hydromorphone opioid in the same complex; are examples of the decision a physically and visually impaired Dixon will soon have to make. Fellow convicted murderer Frank Jarvis Atwood will have to make the same choice. If they fail to make a decision, the lethal injection will be administered.

Though Dixon, Atwood, LaGrand and Wood were all convicted of murder and/or rape and kidnapping the excruciating last moments of Wood and LaGrand caused a stir inside innocent witnesses and the masses. Arizona contemplated this question in the late nineties, the mid 2010s and the early 2020s; given the Eighth Amendment, can the state ethically inflict prolonged carnage upon death row inmates convicted of comparable levels of callousness?

Several news outlets reference a statement from Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, “I made a promise to Arizona voters that people who commit the ultimate crime get the ultimate punishment,” he announced. “I will continue to fight every day for justice for victims, their families, and our communities.”

The Death Penalty Information Center’s timeline on its history in Arizona reports two instances of illegal drugs intended for lethal injections administered by Arizona prisons. In 2011 the DPIC recorded, “Amid a national lethal injection drug shortage, the Department of Justice informs Arizona that its supply of sodium thiopental was imported illegally. Arizona rapidly switches to pentobarbital and continues executions.”

DPIC’s documents found the second instance occurred in 2015, “Arizona tries to import illegal lethal injection drugs from India, but the drugs are confiscated at the Phoenix airport by FDA officials.”

A CBC article said federal officials seized what then Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Wilder called “the state's execution chemicals." Both now and then prison systems across the country were/are battling the lethal dose shortage, resulting in several statements engaging in the same practices, it is unclear if Arizona prisons faced legal repercussions. Prison Legal News claimed that Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota and Texas had shipments seized from the same sodium thiopental (ultra short-acting barbiturate/15-40 minute anesthesia) distributor in India, Harris Pharma.

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Inmates put to death by lethal injection are administered some variation of the standard paralytic, anesthetic and potassium chloride concoction. A 2014 Newsweek article said the cocktail is designed to paralyze the prisoner then put them in an induced sleep before the final drug stops their heart.

Pharmaceutical companies who supply anesthesia consider lethal injections as an improper use of the drug. Newsweek reported little incentives for companies to trace “notoriously complex” pharmaceutical distribution models before it was uncovered by Reprieve’s Death Penalty team. Companies all over the world began to refuse to supply the portion of the lethal potion that makes the injection more humane and less painful.

News outlets say the lethal injection drug shortage emerged in 2010. 11 years later, the Guardian revealed the Arizona State Prison Complex‘s solution to the shortage — refurbishing gas chambers for operability.

“The department bought a solid brick of potassium cyanide in December for $1,530, '' author Ed Pilkington wrote. “It also purchased sodium hydroxide pellets and sulfuric acid which are intended to be used to generate the deadly gas. The gas chamber itself, built in 1949 and disused for 22 years, has been dusted off and, according to the department, ‘refurbished’.”

Just a month before that article was originally published in 2021, the Guardian also uncovered Florence state prison’s $1.5 million purchase on pentobarbital despite the prison’s closing being announced in Gov. Doug Ducey’s 2020 State of Address.

In the gas chamber article, Pilkington goes on to describe the elementary inspections that informed renovations.

“Seals on windows and the door were checked to ensure airtightness, and drains cleared of blockage. Water was used in the tests in place of the deadly chemicals, with a smoke grenade ignited to simulate the gas,” the article read. “Some of the techniques used to test the safety of the chamber were astonishingly primitive, the documents reveal.”

Both causes of deaths, the injection or the chamber, are grotesque fates. On a Newsbreak Counterpoint debate, Republican Nebraska Representative Don Bacon said capital punishment for capital crimes is one the only ways to get justice for the victims and their families. This includes Bowdoin, Vicky Lynne Hockinson, Kenneth Hartstock, Debra Dietz, Eugene Dietz (victims of Dixon, Wood, LaGrand and Atwood).

“The right way to defend life is to hold some one accountable with their life for cold blooded first degree murder,” Bacon said.

His opponent Democratic California Representative Sara Jacobs said taking the life of a killer doesn’t bring back a victim nor does it deter crime.

“The thing that deters crime is whether or not you think you’re going to get caught not how harsh the sentence is and the Supreme Court has found no evidence that capital punishment prevents crime.”

Regardless of the attention drawn from Jewish communities and organizations from Phoenix to Israel; the pleas of Dixon’s attorney, Jennifer Moreno; and the viewpoints of Representative Jacobs; it seems the countdown on Dixon’s life is rapidly dwindling whether he’s fully cognizant or not.

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I found an unexpected comfort and interest in journalism. From storytelling to holding the powerful accountable to the more technical parts of the job, most all of it interests me. I’m using that interest to ignite lights that will illuminate truth.

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