New lawsuit filed to make Arizona prisons stop using cyanide gas

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix and the Arizona ACLU have filed a lawsuit against Arizona Department of Corrections.
Published: Feb. 16, 2022 at 10:18 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix and the Arizona ACLU have filed a lawsuit against Arizona Department of Corrections. They are trying to prevent them from using cyanide gas which was used by the Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

According to a press release from the ACLU, the lawsuit says the use of the cyanide gas “violates the protection against cruel and unusual punishment guaranteed by the Arizona Constitution.” The hope is that Arizona would stop from using the gas in any executions.

The cyanide gas is what the Nazis used during World War II in the gas chambers that led to the deaths of millions of Jews and other people.

“Under no circumstances should the same method of execution used to murder over one million people, including Jews, during the Holocaust be used in the execution of people on death row,” said Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Arizona. “Arizona has acknowledged the horrors of cyanide gas as a method of execution and eliminated it in all but a narrow set of cases — it’s time the court eliminates the use of cyanide gas for execution once and for all. Regardless of where people stand on the matter of capital punishment, it’s clear that use of this barbaric practice is cruel and must be abolished.”

ACLU says there are about 115 people currently on death row in the state. About 17 of those were convicted for their crimes before 1992 which was the year when voters voted against the use of lethal gas for death row inmates.

Last summer, it was revealed that there were plans to refurbish a gas chamber at Florence prison. The reason it sparked so much controversy, is that it 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.

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 needed during the chemical reaction to make sure that the “lethal gas is contained within the vessel to prevent accidental exposure of the chemical and chamber operators,” the department wrote. 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.

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.