By Tess Walsh
39 years ago this week, the United States gas chamber tortured a prisoner to death in a botched execution that added weight to the charge that the death penalty is unconstitutional. Today, the gas chamber remains available for use in four states and with botched lethal injections and US-wide drug supply issues, its re-emergence as an execution method looks ever more likely.
On September 2nd, 1983 at 12:08 a.m., Mississippi State Penitentiary official, T. Berry Bruce, lowered pellets of cyanide into a vat of sulphuric acid. Above it sat Jimmy Lee Gray strapped and bound to a black metal chair. As the lethal hydrocyanic gas filled the chamber, he gulped the fumes as instructed.
One, two, three … Witnesses heard 11 gasps, followed by several moans and a single loud groan. Those in the viewing gallery watched as he strained against the deathly embrace of the straps; his head slumped forward, then violently back, hitting the metal pole behind with such force as to rattle the whole chamber.
Eight minutes in, witnesses were escorted out, while Jimmy continued convulsing and gasping for breath. Later it was revealed the executioner, Mr Bruce, was drunk.
The gas chamber has been shown to be one of the most inhumane methods of execution, with lawmakers across the US divided over its use. In 1996, following a Federal Court decision, the court of appeals affirmed that the California gas chamber was an unconstitutional form of execution, ruling that it violated the eighth amendment, because of its “cruel and unusual” nature (Fierro v. Gomez).
During a gas chamber execution, the prisoner dies from hypoxia, the cutting-off of oxygen to the brain . Dr Richard Traystman of John Hopkins University School of Medicine says that when someone is murdered by lethal gas, “the person is unquestionably experiencing extreme pain and anxiety. The sensation is similar to pain felt by a person during a heart attack”.
The gas chamber has accommodated the execution of a total of 596 prisoners across 11 states to date. The last person to die in a gas chamber was Walter LaGrand, who took 18 minutes to die when he was executed in 1999. It is still known to be used in only five places in the world: Wyoming, Missouri, California, Arizona, and North Korea.
It may be ‘lawful’ but it is immoral and wrong.
Mark Edgar, Anatomical Pathologist, Emory University, Atlanta
Who was Jimmy Lee Gray?
Jimmy Lee was a two-time murderer of 16-year-old Elda Prince, and 3-year-old Derissa Scales, but he was also a broken young man who left this world as he’d lived much of his life: At the mercy of others.
Jimmy came from a traumatic home, with hereditary psychological issues. His mother was treated twice at a California state mental institution, leaving Jimmy in the care of different families throughout his childhood. Whilst Jimmy could “comprehend the intricacies of computer innards” and “write skilfully in iambic pentameter” he also “dreamed repeatedly about his own birth and heard a buzzing incessant voice in one ear he described as the ‘Holy Spirit’.”
The 2002 Atkins v. Virginia ruling categorises the putting to death of a “mentally retarded” criminal as violating the eighth amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” But the ruling came 19 years too late for Jimmy, who would almost certainly have fitted that description.
As the American Civil Liberties Union says, “The death penalty is all too often reserved not for the worst of the worst, but the most broken of the broken”.
The gruesome history of lethal gas
The United States has been putting prisoners to death with lethal gas since the execution of Gee Jon on February 8th 1924.
The first known rudimentary method of execution using lethal gas, was in 1803, during the Haitian Revolution, to suffocate prisoners of war. Over a century later, during the Soviet Unions ‘great purge’, this execution method in the form of gas vans was used again by both the KGB and the STASI.
However, the most infamous use of this execution method was the NAZI’s Eugenics and Holocaust programs. From 1939 to 1941, the NAZI’s conducted their ‘eugenics’ program to execute those who were physically and/or intellectually disabled. Then, from 1941, the NAZI’s committed mass genocide, through extermination camps including Chelmno, Auschwitz and Majdenek, where over one million Jews, Roma and others were murdered in gas chambers. In 1944, over 6000 people were executed at Aushwitz every day.
The Nazi’s used cyanide gas produced in Germany as a pesticide under the trade name “Zyklon B”. There was outrage in 2021 when Arizona dusted off its gas chamber with the intention of using that very same cyanide gas to execute prisoners as an alternative to lethal injection.
Animal v human rights
In the US, the gas chamber has all but been outlawed for all beings excluding humans, because many animal welfare organisations agree that the only way to euthanise an animal humanely, is the direct injection of approved euthanasia drugs. Humane Pro says “lesser alternatives, like carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide can virtually never provide a stress and pain free death.”
In 1998, a state law banned all gas chambers for the euthanasia of cats and dogs in California, yet, it’s still legal to execute a death row prisoner by lethal gas in the same state.
According to the Death Penalty Information Centre (DPIC), execution by lethal gas has the second highest botched execution rate at 5.4%, second only to lethal injection with 7.12%, which many states have turned to as a more so called ‘humane’ method of execution.
However some medical experts also criticise lethal injection, stating that the induced paralysis disguises the extreme suffering of the procedure. Mark Edgar, Anatomical Pathologist at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, said the condemned “would experience severe respiratory distress with associated sensations of drowning, asphyxiation, panic and terror.”
As well as Jimmy Lee, one of the worst cases of both wrongful and botched gas executions, was that of Donald Eugene Harding. He was executed on April 6th 1992. His death took a long 11 minutes, during which he “thrashed and struggled violently.” Many witnesses, like newspaper reporter Carla McLain, were severely traumatised, suffering insomnia for several weeks.
Donald’s lawyer, Jim Belanger watched his client die, and said “State officials claim gas is a lawful method of execution despite the risks of a tortuous death. It may be ‘lawful’ but it is immoral and wrong.” Donald’s execution prompted Arizona to give prisoners the alternative choice of lethal injection.
The US death penalty today
Since Gregg v Georgia and the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1976, there have been a total of 1550 executions. In 2021, 11 people faced the ultimate punishment for their crimes. They were: Lisa Marie Montgomery, Corey Johnson, Dustin John Higgs, Quintin Phillippe Jones, John William Hummel, Rick Allen Rhoades, Ernest Lee Johnson, Willie b. Smith III, John Marion Grant, David Neal Cox Sr, and Bigler Jobe Stouffer II.
Statistics illustrate that public appetite for the death penalty is on the decline. A 2019 national survey found that a record 60% of Americans favoured life imprisonment over the death penalty. At the time of writing, ten people have so far been executed this year, the last being James Coddington on 25th August. As states face issues with drug supplies for lethal injections, some have been cleaning the cobwebs from alternative methods such as the gas chamber, firing squad and the electric chair. Arizona state spent more than $2000 restocking chemicals and refurbishing its gas chamber in 2021, making it likely that the 23 year hiatus in its use will be broken.
Jimmy was just one of 35 Mississippi prisoners to face such a “cruel and unusual” ending to their lives, before the legislature of Mississippi banned the use of gas chamber on March 18th 1998, replacing it with lethal injection. Although it is officially recorded that Jimmy died from hypoxia (gas induced oxygen being cut-off from the brain), witness David Bruck revealed the truth; “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while the reporters counted his moans”.
About the Author
Tess Walsh is a student at Exeter College, studying literature, politics and film. She has just completed a competitive internship with human rights NGO, 3DC, during which she worked on a variety of projects and cases under the supervision of Clive Stafford Smith, OBE. This article was written as part of an editorial project focusing on the US death penalty, and the unconstitutional nature of different execution methods.