Arizona’s Reported ‘Zyklon B’ Plan for Executions Provokes Anger

Global headlines reflected the anger of death camp survivors and others after The Guardian published documents showing the state planned to return to the use of hydrogen cyanide, a gas associated with what the Nazis called Zyklon B.,


Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

Arizona has refurbished and tested a gas chamber and purchased chemicals used to make hydrogen cyanide, a recent report said, drawing a backlash over its possible use on death row inmates.

Headlines noting that the chemicals could form the same poison found in Zyklon B, a lethal gas used by the Nazis, provoked fresh outrage, including among Auschwitz survivors in Germany and Israel, over the association with the Holocaust and hydrogen cyanide’s use in the death camps.

Internal documents about Arizona’s recent steps were published last week by The Guardian. Arizona officials have not confirmed that the state was preparing hydrogen cyanide for use.

Arizona last executed someone with lethal cyanide gas in 1999, when a death row inmate, Walter LaGrand, took 18 minutes to die in an execution that also fueled an outcry in Germany.

“For Auschwitz survivors, the world will finally come apart at the seams, if in any place on this earth the use of Zyklon B in the killing of human beings is considered again,” Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee, said in an interview on Wednesday.

“In their eyes, this is a disgraceful act that is unworthy of any democracy and, moreover, insults the victims of the Holocaust,” he said.

Austria’s ambassador to the United States, Martin Weiss, wrote on Twitter that the death penalty was “itself a cruel and unusual punishment. Getting ready to use Zyklon B for executions is just beyond the pale.”

Zyklon B was the trade name of a product that was originally developed as a pesticide and was then chosen as a means of mass murder in the Nazi camps. It was produced by I.G. Farben, a German chemical conglomerate broken up after World War II.

On Friday, The Guardian published documents from the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry. One of them, a memo dated Dec. 17, described an assessment conducted in August to determine whether a gas chamber in Florence was functional.

The document showed that a smoke grenade was detonated inside the chamber to make sure that it was airtight, and that the fan and exhaust functions were also tested. A candle was held up to sealed areas, like doors and windows, at the facility. No deflection of the flame was observed, the report said.

Overall, there were no “functionality issues” detected, and the “vessel is operationally ready,” the document said.

The Guardian, which obtained redacted state documents and invoices through public records requests, also reported that Arizona in December purchased the components to make the hydrogen cyanide gas.

The Department of Corrections declined to comment, and it was not immediately clear where the agency bought the chemicals. Arizona’s state Constitution says that inmates can choose either lethal injection or lethal gas if they committed their offense before Nov. 23, 1992.

A short supply of lethal drugs has framed the lines of debate over the death penalty in the United States, and pushed several states to seek alternatives, as in South Carolina, where lawmakers have proposed either the electric chair or firing squad.

Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said on Wednesday that Arizona’s protocol designates sodium cyanide as the lethal gas to be used for executions. The documents, he said, suggest that if the state “can’t get lethal injection drugs, then we are prepared to carry out executions with cyanide gas.”

Asked about Arizona’s reported purchase of supplies to make hydrogen cyanide, he said, “There are no assurances that just because it violates their protocol that they are not going to do it.”

He added, “The issue is whether in the 21st century it is appropriate for any state in the United States to be executing prisoners with cyanide gas.”

There are 115 inmates on Arizona’s death row. Arizona has not carried out an execution since 2014, and the last time it did so with hydrogen cyanide gas was in 1999.

In April, the state attorney general, Mark Brnovich, said that he had notified the Arizona Supreme Court that the state intended to seek warrants of execution for two death row inmates, Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon.

The men can select either lethal injection or gas under the state law that allows them the choice because they committed murders before Nov. 23, 1992, his statement said.

C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, referred to the state’s Constitution, and said the governor “has said in the past that this is the law and it is his duty to carry out the law.”

The report about the gas chamber testing and chemical purchase was picked up by national news organizations and spread internationally, drawing particular outrage in Europe.

During World War II, concentration camps were designed for the use of pellets of Zyklon B, including at the Auschwitz camp in German-occupied Poland. At the height of the deportations of Jews from 1943 to 1944, an average of 6,000 Jews were killed each day at Auschwitz.

“What we do know concretely is that of the 1.1 million persons murdered at Auschwitz, 865,000 of these were Jews who were gassed with Zyklon B in the gas chambers, most upon arrival,” said Patricia Heberer Rice, a senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In Germany and Austria, where a culture of atonement for the crimes of the Nazis has led to bans on Nazi symbols, the erecting of monuments honoring Jewish and other victims, and the teaching of history lessons meant to ensure future generations “never again” repeat their transgressions, news media headlines reflected a sense of disbelief and dismay.

“Executions With Holocaust Gas: Arizona to Use Zyklon B,” read the headline in Kurier, an Austrian daily.

“The Nazis gassed millions of Jews with the poison,” the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel reported. “Now the Republican-led state of Arizona wants to use Zyklon B, of all things, for executions.”

“When you hear ‘Zyklon B,’ you automatically think of the Nazi gas chambers, where they murdered millions of people,” wrote the news channel “Now the gas is to be used again, in the U.S. state of Arizona.”

The association of the gas and the Holocaust was cited in Israeli press reports as well. The Jerusalem Post reported this week that the name Zyklon B “is inextricably linked to the horrors of the past, when over a million Jews and others were murdered in Nazi gas chambers using the lethal gas between 1942 and 1945.”

Melissa Eddy contributed reporting.

Leave a Reply