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DIGGING DEEPER: Gas chamber may be an option for upcoming execution

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TUCSON (KVOA)  - In 1992, Arizona voters chose lethal injection over the gas chamber as their preferred method in the scheduled executions of death row inmates.

Now, Arizona is planning to bring the gas chamber back. 

Currently, there are 115 inmates sitting on death row at the Arizona State Prison in Florence.

Since 1992, 37 people have been put to death by lethal injection in our state.

Prior to that, the gas chamber was Arizona's execution method of choice 37-year-old Walter La Grand was the last person to die that way in Arizona back in 1999.

Many witnesses to the execution said it was an agonizing death that took 18 minutes.

Tucsonan, Dawn Barkman was there.

"I would use the word gruesome, I really would," Barkman said. "I can't imagine it was a good way for him to die."

Seventeen years earlier, Walter and his brother Karl tried to rob a bank in Marana where Barkman worked. She watched as they repeatedly stabbed her boss and then came at her.

"I have to say in all honesty, there was no remorse, no leniency when they killed Ken Hartsock and when they tried to kill me," Barkman said.  

The Death Row Penalty Information Center says Arizona has refurbished its gas chamber and has spent more than $2,000 to get chemicals used in cyanide gas to carry out executions.  

Zyklon B is what was used in the holocaust made with hydrogen cyanide.

The plan is controversial.

Some news entities reported the state will be using Zyclon B.

News 4 Tucson Digging Deeper team contacted the Department of Corrections and asked them.

Their response is listed below.

"The department does not discuss the procurement process for executions." ADCRR Media Relations

Rebecca Fealk is with American Friends Service Committee, a prisoner advocacy group, who opposes capital punishment. 

"To go to this archaic and really more barbaric form of execution is really concerning," Fealk said.  

She referenced the execution of Joseph Wood in 2014. "It was botched, this person suffered over two hours." 

He was the last inmate to be executed in Arizona by lethal injection. 

Following Wood's execution, the state changed its lethal injection protocols by using either pentobarbital or thiopental to carry out lethal injection executions.

The state recently spent $1.5 million to purchase pentobarbital. Just two months ago, the Attorney General's Office asked the Arizona Supreme Court to issue execution warrants for Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon. These men will have a choice as to how they want to be executed because their death sentence was handed down before 1992.

Prior to that, the gas chamber was used, but the state legislature ruled that procedure to be inhumane when it took Donald Eugene Harding over 10 minutes to die.

Dixon and Atwood have been on death row for over 30 years.

Dixon was convicted of killing a 21-year-old Arizona State University student in Phoenix.

Atwood was convicted of killing 8-year-old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson in 1984.   A case that shook the Tucson community.  She disappeared while riding her bike to mail a birthday card to her aunt.

"I think the fact that the department is going through lengths such as this," Fealk said. "Really shows why the death penalty is not effective, that it is not actually about justice or community safety it is about vengeance."

According to Fealk, using Zyklon B is not the answer. 

"State leaders and the department of corrections really need to be asking, 'should we go to such extreme measures to kill someone?'" Fealk said. "Is this actually justice and is this keeping us safe?"

In a statement from the Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Rentry, they told the Digging Deeper team in part:  

"ADCRR, along with the Arizona Attorney General's office, are prepared to fulfill its constitutional obligations, carry out court orders and deliver justice to the victims' families."

Barkman is now a 26-year veteran with the Pima County Sheriff's Department. She said she has no opinion on the manner of death.

"I think people should be accountable and responsible for the things they do to people," Barkman. 

The Attorney General's Office has until August 12 to file motions seeking the death penalty.

The inmates and their attorneys have two weeks to respond.

State prosecutors will then have until September 2 to reply.

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry policy on capital punishment is set in the Arizona Constitution.

Article 22, section 22 of the Arizona Constitution states:

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.

In addition, Arizona Revised Statute § 13-757.B states:

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. 

Additional information about capital punishment in Arizona is available here:

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the video above and in past versions of this story, the spokesperson for American Friends Service Committee was named Rebecca Felk. Her name is Rebecca Fealk.

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Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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