TIME Race

Calm Restored in Baltimore as the City Awaits the Funeral of Freddie Gray

CORRECTION Suspect Dies Baltimore
Jose Luis Magana—AP From left, David Pontious, Moira Pannepacker, Kelly Lussier and Juliana Restrivo, hold support signs for Freddie Gray outside of Vaughn Greene Funeral Home, during his wake Sunday, April 26, 2015 in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van.

Hundreds visited a local funeral home to pay their respects

BALTIMORE—Freddie Gray’s body lies in state on a city fault line.

To the west of Vaughn Greene Funeral Services, where a wake was held Sunday for the 25-year-old Baltimore man who died in police custody, is Loyola University and largely white and affluent surrounding neighborhoods. To the east are Winston-Govans and Richnor Springs and Kenilworth Park—all low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods.

On Sunday, Gray’s body was at a nexus of those two Baltimores. The funeral home is located on York Road, a north-south corridor that almost neatly divides those starkly different areas of the city. Gray, who was black, died in police custody on April 19 after he was arrested a week earlier near Gilmor Homes, a public housing complex. Gray ran from police after he “made eye contact” with officers and was eventually detained. Video taken by bystanders shows police dragging Gray into a police van. An autopsy later showed that Gray died from a severe spinal injury.

The incident has joined those in Ferguson, North Charleston, Cleveland and New York—all instances in which police use of force incidents against black men have been called into question. On Saturday, protests over Gray’s death briefly turned violent when Baltimore police arrested 35 protesters after businesses were vandalized and police vehicles damaged. Officials blame a small group of people from outside the city for the violence. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at least one of those arrested was from outside of Baltimore.

But on Sunday, Baltimore remained largely quiet aside from several dozen demonstrators lining York outside the funeral home where hundreds of family and friends paid their respects. Some stood in the street for hours holding cut-out cardboard signs that read “We Will Remember Freddie” in black marker while urging passing cars to honk in support.

Joseph Capista, a lecturer at Towson University who helped organize Sunday’s demonstration, said he hoped Gray’s death would be a tipping point for the city.

“We live in an antebellum society in terms of racial justice,” Capista said, adding that he believed police behavior differed depending on the neighborhood. Policing in white neighborhoods, he said, is often more respectful on the whole than in poorer black ones.

A number of protesters were concerned that Baltimore—nicknamed “Charm City”—was being treated unfairly in the media after the trouble on Saturday.

“Baltimore was not out of control,” said Karen DeCamp, a director at the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, a nonprofit advocacy organization, who was demonstrating outside the funeral home. “Baltimore was not burning. A very small number of people made some trouble, and it was completely blown out of proportion.”

While there was no violence Sunday, there was still anger. Patrices Kelly, 40, who lives in West Baltimore and was watching demonstrators Sunday, said she wanted both the mayor and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts to step down.

Kelly said she was “angry as hell,” and “frustrated” at city officials’ response. “We just want to do something about it.”

Several miles away, Baltimore’s mayor convened a press conference at the Bethel A.M.E. Baptist Church alongside about a dozen religious and community leaders. Rawlings-Blake said that a “small group of agitators” turned otherwise peaceful demonstrations violent on Saturday, calling their actions “unacceptable.”

“We cannot and will not let a minority of incendiary individuals exploit the honorable intentions of those trying to exercise their rights,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings said he saw “tremendous restraint” on the part of the Baltimore police Saturday.

On Monday, Gray is set to be buried at the New Shiloh Baptist Church in the neighborhood of Mondawmin. The fault line of York Road will remain for now.

TIME Crime

Grand Jury Clears Dallas Cops in Deadly Shooting of Man Wielding Screwdriver

A federal civil rights case is still pending

A grand jury has decided not to indict two Dallas police officers in the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man brandishing a screwdriver.

A Dallas County grand jury on Thursday found that John Rogers and Andrew Hutchins, two officers with the Dallas Police Department, did not act unlawfully in June when they shot 38-year-old Jason Harrison, who family members said was schizophrenic and bipolar but was not taking his medication.

Police were responding to a 911 call from Harrison’s mother requesting help getting him to the hospital. Video from a police body camera shows Harrison, who was black, in the doorway of his home holding a screwdriver, which officers demanded he drop.

The police shot Harrison and later said he was moving toward them aggressively, but Harrison’s lawyer said there is no evidence to substantiate those claims.

“Our view of the evidence is the film didn’t show any lunging, didn’t show any jabbing, didn’t show any thrusting,” Geoff Henley, an attorney for Harrison’s family, said. A federal civil rights lawsuit is still pending.

[Dallas Morning News]

 

TIME Crime

Security Camera Shows Inmate Brawl at Rikers Island Jail

Rare surveillance video shows violence in troubled New York City jail

Rare security camera footage from inside New York City’s Rikers Island jail shows a guard throwing an inmate to the floor and a gang-related brawl at a juvenile facility involving close to a dozen prisoners.

The New Yorker has obtained video surveillance from inside New York City’s main jail that shows Kalief Browder, who was arrested in 2010 at the age of 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, being pushed to the ground by a jail official as he was being taken to the shower. The incident occurred Sept. 23, 2012, and the Department of Correction says it is looking into the video.

In an earlier incident captured on the jail’s surveillance cameras in October 2010, Browder is beaten by numerous inmates. That episode occurred in a housing unit at Rikers’ adolescent jail, which the New Yorker reports was run by a gang.

Rikers Island has been plagued by violence for years. In December, the federal government sued the city over civil rights violations against teenage inmates. That same month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an end to solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds at Rikers. The mayor is now trying to reduce the jail’s population by speeding up the process for Rikers inmates who are awaiting trial.

Read more at the New Yorker

TIME Crime

Michael Brown’s Family Files Wrongful Death Suit Against City of Ferguson

Benjamin L. Crump, Anthony D. Gray, Lesley McSpadden
Jeff Roberson—AP Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, wipes her eye as she is flanked by her attorneys Anthony D. Gray, left, and Benjamin L. Crump, right, during a news conference April 23, 2015, in Clayton, Mo.

But the lawsuit's claims conflict with the findings of a DOJ investigation

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of Michael Brown against the City of Ferguson, Mo. claims the black teenager had his hands up and told Officer Darren Wilson “don’t shoot” — in contrast to the findings of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the incident.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday by Michael Brown Sr., and Lesley McSpadden against the city, Officer Darren Wilson and former Police Chief Thomas Jackson. The family claims that the city engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional behavior involving stops, detentions and arrests, excessive force and a practice of racial bias against the city’s black residents.

There is, however, one key difference between the facts laid out in the family’s civil lawsuit and the DOJ’s findings: the family claims that Brown was holding his hands up at the time of the shooting and told Officer Wilson not to shoot because he was unarmed.

“In a final attempt to protect himself, and prevent additional bodily harm and/or imminent death, MBJ turned around and raised his hands in a non-threatening manner,” the lawsuit says, referring to Brown. “Upon information and belief, MBJ conveyed the following statement to Defendant Wilson: ‘Don’t shoot. I don’t have a gun. I’m unarmed.’”

Although the DOJ report did find a history of explicit racial bias among Ferguson police officers, it concluded that the claim that Brown had his hands up at the time Wilson shot him could not be substantiated by the physical evidence of the crime scene and accounts by credible eyewitnesses. Instead, the federal government found that Brown was running toward Wilson, which contributed to the decision by the justice department not to pursue federal charges against the officer. A grand jury also elected not to charge Wilson, who is white.

After some eyewitnesses claimed Brown had been holding his hands up at the time of his death, the phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot” became a rallying cry of demonstrators in Ferguson and around the country.

The lawsuit asks for punitive and compensatory damages from the city of Ferguson on seven counts of what are described as unconstitutional practices but doesn’t specify a dollar amount. The suit also seeks changes to the police department’s patrol techniques and asks for a compliance monitor to oversee the city’s use of force practices for the next five years or until a court has determined that reforms have taken place.

TIME Crime

Freddie Gray Was ‘Folded Up Like a Crab,’ Witness Says

Suspect Dies Baltimore
Patrick Semansky—AP A child watches a protest march for Freddie Gray as it passes by April 22, 2015, in Baltimore. Gray died from spinal injuries about a week after he was arrested and transported in a police van.

Kevin Moore, who filmed the Baltimore man's arrest, describes what he saw

A Baltimore man who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died from a spinal injury after being detained by police, says he witnessed officers placing their heels in Gray’s back and having him “folded up like a crab.”

Several videos have now emerged showing the arrest of the black 25-year-old, which has once again focused national attention on police use of force following a series of earlier incidents in Ferguson, New York City, Cleveland and North Charleston, and has sparked protests around Baltimore.

According to the Baltimore Sun, Kevin Moore, who lives in Gilmor Homes, a Baltimore housing complex where Gray was arrested, filmed part of the incident in which Gray can be seen screaming while two officers have him handcuffed and pinned to the sidewalk.

“They had him folded up like he was a crab or a piece of origami,” Moore told the Sun. “He was all bent up.” Moore says one officer had his knee in Gray’s neck and that Gray was telling them he couldn’t breathe and needed an asthma pump.

A police report of the incident said Gray was detained without use of force on April 12, but authorities have so far provided little detail on how Gray came to be fatally injured. He died on Sunday a week after his arrest.

The six officers involved have been suspended with pay pending an investigation by the police department, which will be released May 1. The Department of Justice has also opened an investigation.

 

TIME police

Feds Open Investigation Into Baltimore Man’s Fatal Injury in Police Custody

Gloria Darden, third from left, mother of Freddie Gray, walks with supporters and family members of Gray in a march to the Baltimore Police Department's Western District police station during a vigil for Gray on April 21, 2015, in Baltimore.
Patrick Semansky—AP Gloria Darden, third from left, mother of Freddie Gray, walks with supporters and family members of Gray in a march to the Baltimore Police Department's Western District police station during a vigil for Gray on April 21, 2015, in Baltimore.

Protesters are asking for answers from city officials

The Justice Department announced Tuesday it opened a federal inquiry into a Baltimore case involving a man who was arrested earlier this month and later died after an apparent spinal injury, the latest incident of a police-related death of a black man to drive the national debate about race and excessive force.

Federal investigators will look into whether the civil rights of Freddie Gray, who died Sunday, had been violated after his arrest on April 12. The incident has ignited protests around Baltimore, a city that has struggled for years to maintain trust between police and residents, and put a spotlight on law-enforcement officials and the mayor as the case continues to raise more questions than answers.

According to the Baltimore police department, which released the names of the six officers involved in the incident and suspended them with pay, Gray was arrested after he “made eye contact” with police and ran. Authorities later said Gray was carrying a knife that was clipped to the inside of his pocket. In a video recorded by a bystander, Gray is seen being placed inside a police van and appears to have trouble walking.

Police have denied using force against Gray, whose spine was described by the family’s attorney as 80% “severed at the neck.” Gray eventually lapsed into a coma and died.

“I know that when Mr. Gray was placed inside that van, he was able to talk,” Baltimore deputy police commissioner Jerry Rodriguez told reporters on Monday. “And when Mr. Gray was taken out of that van, he could not talk, and he could not breathe.”

William “Billy” Murphy, Jr., an attorney representing Gray’s family, told TIME the bystander’s video is “suggestive of the injury happening during arrest.”

“We know that while in police custody, this guy was extraordinarily injured,” he said. “What we don’t know yet is exactly who did it, why they did it or how they did it.”

Gray was arrested near the Gilmor Homes public-housing complex, which is in a neighborhood that has experienced years of frayed relations between residents and law-enforcement officers. “There’s a huge amount of distrust in this community,” says Baltimore city councilman Nick Mosby, who represents the district where Gray was arrested. “It’s an us-vs.-them type of approach.”

The complex itself has also had problems. In 2010 a federal grand jury indicted 22 people on drug-conspiracy charges centered on the residences. In 2014 a woman accused Baltimore police of using a Taser on her as she held her 11-month-old brother within the complex. Police denied the allegations and said she was not holding the baby at the time.

“What you have is a terrible, terrible police-community relationship, and you essentially have the police with the unenviable task as they would see it trying to take control and keep a lid on neighborhoods that are so ridden with hopelessness and anger and disconnected people,” says Barbara Samuels, an ACLU attorney who has worked on behalf of black public-housing residents. “But at the same time, they don’t feel protected at all by the police. It’s just a very toxic situation.”

The Gray incident follows several high-profile cases around the U.S. involving police use-of-force, including incidents in Ferguson, New York City, Cleveland and North Charleston, S.C., in which police actions contributed to the deaths of black men.

Baltimore police commissioner Anthony Batts has called for changes in the way the city’s police move arrested individuals and said the department would re-examine how it provides medical attention to those in custody. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has pledged that officials will conduct a thorough review of the incident to determine how Gray sustained life-ending injuries.

“This is a very, very tense time for Baltimore city, and I understand the community’s frustration,” Rawlings-Blake said in a news conference Monday. “I understand it because I’m frustrated. I’m angry that we are here again, that we have to tell another mother that her child is dead. I’m frustrated not only that we are here, but we don’t have all of the answers.”

But repairing trust between citizens and the police in Baltimore is something that will take far longer than determining how and why Gray died.

“Just like in Ferguson, Cleveland and North Charleston, people are saying, I’d rather the police not come here,” says Mosby, the councilman. “Maybe I don’t want my neighbor’s son pulled over and ultimately wind up a victim of some kind of incident that could’ve been handled a different way.”

TIME Laws

Kansas Tattoo Parlors Say Nobody’s Getting Inked on Welfare Checks

Gov. Sam Brownback signs a welfare reform bill into law in Topeka, Kan. on April 16, 2015.
Orlin Wagner—AP Gov. Sam Brownback signs a welfare reform bill into law in Topeka, Kans., on Apr. 16, 2015.

A new law also restricts welfare spending on lingerie, concert tickets and psychics

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed into law Thursday some of the country’s strictest prohibitions on where welfare money can and can’t be spent. For needy families in the Sunflower State, concerts are out. Casinos: out. Lingerie: out. Fortune tellers: out. The law lists more than two dozen products or businesses that are now off-limits.

But owners and operators of a half-dozen Kansas psychics, lingerie stores and tattoo parlors, in which poor families are now restricted from spending cash assistance from the state, all say essentially the same thing: patrons aren’t using welfare in here anyway.

“I’ve never seen anybody try that,” says Aimee Teets, a receptionist at Aftershock Tattoo Co., in Olathe, Kan. Teets says some pre-loadable cards aren’t even accepted at her business, so it’s possible that a benefits card from the state would’ve been denied even before the law was passed.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 23 states have passed restrictions on state benefit cards in attempts to prevent purchases on items like alcohol and gambling. The law signed in Kansas Thursday is believed to be among the most restrictive in the U.S.

But according to studies, most welfare recipients appear to be spending a majority of their money on basic necessities. According to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, a vast majority of families on public assistance spend that money on housing, food and transportation. Only a small percentage goes to expenses like entertainment.

The Associated Press also cites a 2014 federal report looking at eight states’ welfare transactions showing that spending on liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs made up less than 1% of the total.

Liz Bartlett, a sales associate at lingerie store Clair de Lune in Overland Park, Kan., says she’s never been aware of anyone using welfare money on purchases at the store. Tattooists who spoke to TIME agreed. “I’ve never heard of anything like that,” says Jim, the general manager of The Mercy Seat who refused to give his last name. “But we’re cash only anyway.”

That still poses a problem for state officials hoping to keep welfare monies in check. The new law allows people to withdraw $25 a day, and the state can’t easily control where it’s spent.

“The purchases may be declined if an EBT card is used,” says Theresa Freed, a spokesperson for the Kansas Department for Children and Families. “If [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] cash funds are withdrawn from an EBT card, it is very difficult to track the use of those funds.”

TIME Crime

This Town Has 1 Cop for Every 2 Residents

An Oakley police car on March 14, 2014 in Oakley, Mich.
Jeff Schrier—AP An Oakley police car in Oakley, Mich., on March 14, 2014 .

And one of them might be Kid Rock

A town in Michigan with a population of just 300 has roughly 150 police officers in an alleged “pay-to-play” scheme that allows reserve officers to get around the state’s gun restrictions.

The town of Oakley, Mich., has dozens of people apply to become cops in the tiny town, The Guardian reports, among them rapper Kid Rock, a football player for the Miami Dolphins, and various Michigan businessmen.

Those accepted to become reserve officers, who pay sums of up to $4,000 to join the force, are then authorized to carry firearms in places that generally ban them, like schools and bars. The Saginaw News reported that the law enforcement agency had raised almost $250,000 from 2008 to 2014.

The allegations are part of a lawsuit intended to make the Oakley police force more transparent. A lawyer involved in the case told the Guardian that all the reservists but one live at least 90 minutes drive from the town.

Reserve officers have come under scrutiny in recent weeks after the apparent accidental shooting of Eric Harris by Robert Bates, a 73-year-old volunteer deputy in Tulsa, Okla. Harris was shot and killed by Bates, who said he meant to use his Taser instead of his gun.

[Guardian]

TIME Crime

Missouri National Guard Called Ferguson Protesters ‘Enemy Forces’

Police and Missouri National Guard attempt to control demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.
Scott Olson—Getty Images Police and Missouri National Guard attempt to control demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.

Internal documents bolster claims of military-style approach

The Missouri National Guard referred to protesters in Ferguson last summer as “enemy forces,” according to documents obtained by CNN, bolstering claims the police adopted military tactics to react to protests over the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

In August, the state’s National Guard was called into aid local police agencies who were attempting to control demonstrators protesting the death of Brown, a black unarmed teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.

The protests began as a demonstration against police use of force. But the response by law enforcement agencies, which mobilized armored vehicles and utilized tear gas and M4 rifles, spurred a national conversation over the militarization of police and prompted Congress to hold hearings over the flow of military gear to local police agencies.

The documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request appears to support those who claim authorities used a excessively military-style approach in its response.

“It’s disturbing when you have what amounts to American soldiers viewing American citizens somehow as the enemy,” Antonio French, a prominent alderman in St. Louis, told the network.

[CNN]

TIME Crime

The Dawn of a New Form of Capital Punishment

Why Oklahoma became the first state to approve nitrogen gas as a lethal injection alternative

In the weeks following the execution of Clayton Lockett, the Oklahoma death row inmate whose botched lethal injection triggered a statewide moratorium on executions, lawmakers there began rethinking their approach to capital punishment. Among the people they called on to help was Michael Copeland.

Copeland is a criminal justice professor at East Central University, a public school with about 6,000 students in Ada, Okla. From 2010 to 2013, he was the director of the anti-fraud unit at the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Before that, he was an assistant attorney general for the Republic of Palau, a small island nation in the Pacific Ocean. Copeland is not a doctor. He has no medical training. But what he does have is a close relationship with Oklahoma legislators, some of whom he’s known for years. And they often ask Copeland to conduct research and gather data that could help shape bills. He’s worked with legislators on reducing the number of uninsured motorists, for example, and helped draft guidelines for the transportation of the mentally ill who are a danger to themselves and others.

About a year ago, Oklahoma Rep. Mike Christian, who attended high school with Copeland, asked his old friend for ideas on how to replace the increasingly problematic method of lethal injection. After studying the issue, Copeland recommended death by nitrogen, a method that has never been used for a state-sanctioned killing in the U.S.

Nevertheless, Oklahoma has embraced the idea. On Friday, Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, signed a bill into law, based on Copeland’s research, that would make nitrogen asphyxiation the state’s execution method if lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional or the necessary drugs are no longer available. The law marks a new frontier in the increasingly charged debate over the future of capital punishment in America. And it ensured that the state where lethal injection originated three decades ago has resumed its place as the nation’s execution laboratory.

The Problems With Lethal Injection

The idea of nitrogen asphyxiation or “nitrogen hypoxia” has been been batted around as a method of capital punishment for years. A 1995 National Review article titled “Killing With Kindness: Capital Punishment by Nitrogen Asphyxiation,” for example, recommended that states use nitrogen gas after a federal district court deemed California’s gas chamber unconstitutional. But the method largely remained on the fringes of the capital punishment debate.

MORE: Texas Running Out of Execution Drug

Twenty years later, the landscape has changed dramatically. Today, a number of states are facing severe lethal injection drug shortages after pharmaceutical companies stopped providing drugs for the procedure. Texas, for example, is down to enough pentobarbital for just a handful of executions. Legislators in Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia have introduced legislation to bring back the electric chair because of problems obtaining drugs, while Utah has resurrected the firing squad. And looming over it all is a Supreme Court case this summer involving Oklahoma’s three-drug protocol. The court’s decision could potentially force states to abandon lethal injection altogether.

“The problem we’re having in Oklahoma now and several other states is that while lethal injections used to be an effective and humane way to execute someone, it’s really not anymore,” Copeland says. “The facts on the ground have changed. Now it’s like an experiment every time. Here’s some drugs and maybe we’ll have a paramedic administer it and let’s see what happens. Maybe this will kill ‘em. It’s kind of haphazard, and I think it’s only going to get worse.”

No one could’ve foreseen lethal injection’s problems in 1977, when an Oklahoma legislator asked Dr. Jay Chapman, the state medical examiner, to develop what was intended to be a more humane execution alternative to firing squads. Chapman developed a three-drug cocktail that soon became the default method of executions nationwide. But by 2010, European drug makers acceded to pressure from death penalty opponents and stopped selling drugs for use in executions. As supplies dwindled, states scrambled to figure out how to keep killing without the three drugs they had long relied on: sodium thiopental, a sedative; pancuronium bromide, a paralytic agent; and potassium chloride, a compound that stops the heart.

Some states switched to using just one drug, often pentobarbital, a barbiturate. Others began using midazolam, a sedative that has been scrutinized by some anesthesiologists for not being strong enough to properly induce unconsciousness and is at the heart of the upcoming Supreme Court case. Many states have turned to compounding pharmacies, which are unregulated by the federal government, for their supply while passing secrecy laws to keep those drug makers shielded from public view.

Last year, there were three executions widely considered botched, all of which included the sedative midazolam. Dennis McGuire, an Ohio inmate convicted of rape and murder, died after reportedly snoring and snorting during his lethal injection. Joseph Wood, an Arizona inmate, reportedly gasped on the gurney in an execution that took nearly two hours. And in Oklahoma, Lockett died in a lethal injection that went so awry that documents obtained by the Tulsa World show that Lockett essentially helped his executioners find a vein after they failed multiple times to insert IVs into his arms and legs. It was that chaotic scene that sent Oklahoma legislators on the search for an alternative.

The Search For A Better Way to Kill

Copeland says there were four main criteria he tried to meet in recommending a new execution method: 1) it had to be humane; 2) it couldn’t have supply problems; 3) it had to be simple to administer; 4) it could be done without medical professionals. Nitrogen, Copeland says, satisfies all four.

MORE: The Harsh Reality of Execution by Firing Squad

The method would likely consist of a gas mask that covers the head and neck, which would be filled with pure nitrogen from a nearby canister. That nitrogen would displace the oxygen, leading to death by oxygen deprivation, says Solomon Snyder, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins Medical School who is not involved in the Oklahoma bill.

The method’s supporters cite accidental deaths that were reportedly peaceful — such as divers who took in too much nitrogen and pilots whose oxygen levels fell too low — as evidence of the chemical’s efficacy. Nitrogen hypoxia has also been recommended by some advocates of euthanasia in places without so-called right to die laws. The gas is also relatively cheap and abundant, decreasing concerns about supply problems.

“Execution via nitrogen hypoxia is a painless form of capital punishment that is simple to administer, doesn’t depend upon the aid of the medical community, and is not subject to the supply constraints we are faced with when using the current three-drug cocktail protocol,” State Rep. Mike Christian, who wrote the House bill authorizing nitrogen gas, said in an e-mail.

Copeland says that physicians, who declined to testify in front of state legislators, confirmed for a 14-page study he co-authored that a lack of oxygen would lead someone to pass out within about 15 seconds, halt brain waves within 30 to 45 seconds and stop the heart within two to three minutes. In September, Copeland presented his findings to the Oklahoma House Judiciary Committee. His presentation included YouTube videos of people passing out from too much helium, another inert gas. Pilots testified about experiencing hypoxia, describing the gradual decrease of oxygen as undetectable, and Copeland claims the effects with nitrogen would be similar.

“We have a lot of parallels,” Copeland says. “We’ve just never used [nitrogen] in this context.”

Changing the context could prove problematic. Administrating the gas within a prison is much different than the instances in which pilots and divers have slowly and accidentally experienced a lack of oxygen. Dr. Michael Weiden, a pulmonary expert at NYU School of Medicine, says that while nitrogen could be administered without medical professionals, using it for capital punishment could create an ironic consequence: the need for sedation.

“What’s going to prevent someone from holding their breath and prolonging their execution?” says Weiden, who supports the death penalty for certain crimes. “People are going to hold their breath as the oxygen leaks out of their bodies. They’ll struggle, and somebody who thinks that an individual who’s asphyxiating will not freak out without sedation is foolish.”

The American Medical Association’s ethical guidelines require that “physicians can only certify death, provided that the condemned has been declared dead by another person,” according to spokesman R.J. Mills. The association does not have a position on the Oklahoma bill.

Despite the unanswered questions, more states appear to be considering nitrogen as they plan for a future without lethal injection. Copeland says he has been in touch with corrections officials in several states, some of which he says are “ahead of us in terms of protocol.” Copeland would not disclose the states.

Oklahoma Sen. Anthony Sykes, who sponsored the nitrogen bill in the state Senate, says Louisiana and Texas have both shown interest in the method. Louisiana Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc told a legislative committee last year that “nitrogen is the next big thing” and described it as a “painless way to go.” In February, the state’s corrections department issued a report recommending nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative method of execution.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice would not confirm that the state was considering alternative execution methods.

To some lethal injection experts the interest in nitrogen has familiar echoes of the discussion nearly 40 years ago, when states were contemplating methods other than firing squads and gas chambers.

“It looks fool-proof,” says Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University who opposes the death penalty over what she says is its inequitable application in the U.S. “It’s easy to look at these incidents in a non-prison setting and say they die humanely. But implementing that into a prison setting, the conditions aren’t the same. The people doing this aren’t the same.”

Corrections officials have varied levels of training and experience with lethal injection, which can lead to the sorts of errors that contributed to Lockett’s prolonged execution. Denno cautions that the same problems could happen with the administration of nitrogen.

Richard Dieter, the senior program director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty group, says Oklahoma would essentially be conducting another experiment if it went adopted nitrogen hypoxia.

MORE: Georgia Postpones 2 Execution Over ‘Cloudy’ Drugs

“This method has never been used before in an execution,” Dieter says. “I think it’s premature to accept a legislator’s promise that all will go well. It’s one thing to say that people have died of oxygen deprivation and another to strap an unwilling subject in a chamber and watch the reactions and resistance for the first time.”

Now that Fallin has signed the bill into law, Oklahoma has sidestepped something a number of other states have been forced into: a return to methods that were all but abandoned decades ago.

“You got to remember that if this doesn’t pass, the alternative is not to go back to lethal injection,” Copeland said in February. “If for some reason lethal injection either becomes unavailable or it’s unconstitutional, we go to the electric chair. Maybe you don’t believe in the death penalty, but certainly you believe that if we’re going to have a death penalty, it should be done in a humane way. And I think [nitrogen] is better than the electric chair by a wide margin.”

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