Arizona faces controversy for plans to refurbish gas chamber at Florence Prison

Florence prison carried out one of the last gas executions in the country decades ago.
Florence prison carried out one of the last gas executions in the country decades ago.(AP Photo/File)
Updated: Jul. 2, 2021 at 10:00 AM MST
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FLORENCE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- The Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR) has been facing controversy for its decision to refurbish the gas chamber at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. The prison carried out one of the last gas executions in the country decades ago.

The reason it has sparked so much controversy dates back to the Holocaust during World War II, when the Nazis used gas chambers to murder millions of Jewish people. The Nazis used chemicals like hydrogen cyanide gas in those chambers. At the Auschwitz concentration camp alone, 865,000 Jews were killed in the gas chambers.

Documents obtained by Arizona’s Family showed that the state allegedly purchased materials to make hydrogen cyanide gas to use the refurbished gas chamber at Florence Prison for prisoner executions. The secret refurbishment of the gas chamber late last year at the prison southeast of Phoenix is drawing criticism as a cruel approach to punishment that is out of touch with modern sensibilities.

“Whether or not one supports the death penalty as a general matter, there is general agreement in American society that a gas devised as a pesticide, and used to eliminate Jews, has no place in the administration of criminal justice,” the American Jewish Committee.

In paperwork from ADCRR, the gas chamber is a “negative pressure vessel that operates by generating a chemical reaction between potassium cyanide and sulfuric acid to release hydrogen cyanide gas into the chamber. Negative pressure is required during this chemical reaction to ensure that the lethal gas is contained within the vessel to prevent accidental exposure of the chemical and chamber operators.” ADCRR conducted a test of the chamber back in August 2020. That test consisted of an inspection of the chamber for any corrosion, seal integrity, and how operational it was. It was also tested for airtightness.

“It was able to develop a negative pressure environment inside the vessel in approximately fifteen minutes,” according to a report from ADCRR. However, they did find that there were concerns found about the seal.

According to a document obtained by Arizona’s Family, the process of refurbishing the ASPC-Florence gas chamber started on Dec. 2, 2020. The process included: dismantling, inspection, removal, and replacement of seals, windows, chamber door, acid pot vent, tubing, gaskets, and so forth. The next day, operational tests were conducted, including a candle test to check the airtightness. In that test, internal negative pressure took just 1 minute. Staff determined that the gas chamber was operational and ready for use.

Judy Keane, the director of communications ADCRR, says they, along with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, plan to “fulfill its constitutional obligations, carry out court orders and deliver justice to the victims’ families.”

“The judgment of death shall be inflicted by administering an intravenous injection of a substance or substances in a lethal quantity sufficient to cause death except that defendants sentenced to death for offenses committed prior to the effective date of the amendment to this section shall have the choice of either lethal injection or lethal gas. The lethal injection or lethal gas shall be administered under such procedures and supervision as prescribed by law. The execution shall take place within the limits of the state prison,” according to the Arizona Constitution.

“A defendant who is sentenced to death for an offense committed before November 23, 1992, shall choose either lethal injection or lethal gas at least twenty days before the execution date. If the defendant fails to choose either lethal injection or lethal gas, the penalty of death shall be by lethal injection,” according to to the Arizona Constitution.

ASPC-Florence was one of the first prisons built in Arizona in the early 1900s, according to ADCRR’s website. The prison was built with a death chamber, which is located a floor above death row. ADCRR says the first execution by lethal gas took place on July 6, 1934, when two brothers, Manuel and Fred Hernandez, were executed just before the start of World War II.

The last prisoner to be executed in a U.S. gas chamber was Walter LaGrand, the second of two German brothers sentenced to death for killing a bank manager in 1982 in southern Arizona. It took LaGrand 18 minutes to die in 1999. Before 1999, there were 36 other executions by lethal gas in Arizona.

Executions were put on hold in Arizona after the 2014 death of Joseph Wood, who gasped for air and snorted as he was injected with 15 doses of a two-drug combination over two hours. Wood was executed for the 1989 shooting deaths of his estranged girlfriend, Debra Dietz, and her father, Eugene Dietz, in Tucson. Two months ago, prosecutors signaled they would seek to execute two prisoners, Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon.

Arizona also has struggled to find drug suppliers but revealed this spring it had obtained a shipment of pentobarbital. Corrections officials pointed to statutory and constitutional requirements that let death-row prisoners opt for the gas chamber if they were convicted of crimes that occurred before Arizona adopted lethal injection in 1992. The state is one of four with decades-old gas-chamber laws still on the books.

It is unclear whether any of Arizona’s death-row prisoners have expressed a preference for the gas chamber. ADCRR said in a statement that it’s “prepared to fulfill its constitutional obligations, carry out court orders and deliver justice to the victims’ families.”

Lawyers who practice death-penalty law in Arizona say its execution protocol contained no provisions for carrying out gas chamber executions from 2007 until the policies were amended this year.

One federal public defender who represents prisoners on Arizona’s death row in their appeals has a theory about ADCRR’s decision to refurbish the gas chamber as ASPC-Florence. “My guess is that because there are 17 people, the department wants to be ready,” Dale Baich said.