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A gas chamber is an apparatus for killing humans or animals with gas, consisting of a sealed chamber into which a poisonous or asphyxiant gas is introduced. The most commonly used poisonous agent is hydrogen cyanide; carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide have also been used. Gas chambers were used as a method of execution for condemned prisoners in the United States beginning in the 1920s and continues to be a legal execution method in 3 states. During the Holocaust, large-scale gas chambers designed for mass killing were used by Nazi Germany as part of their genocide program, and also by the Independent State of Croatia at the Jasenovac concentration camp. The use of gas chambers has also been reported in North Korea.
Gas chambers have been used for capital punishment in the United States to execute criminals, especially convicted murderers. The first person to be executed in the United States by lethal gas was Gee Jon, on February 8, 1924. An unsuccessful attempt to pump poison gas directly into his cell at Nevada State Prison led to the development of the first makeshift gas chamber to carry out Gee's death sentence.
In 1957, Burton Abbott was executed as the governor of California, Goodwin J. Knight, was on the telephone to stay the execution. Since the restoration of the death penalty in the United States in 1976, eleven executions by gas chamber have been conducted. By the 1980s, reports of suffering during gas chamber executions had led to controversy over the use of this method.
At the September 2, 1983, execution of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi, officials cleared the viewing room after eight minutes while Gray was still alive and gasping for air. The decision to clear the room while he was still alive was criticized by his attorney. David Bruck, an attorney specializing in death penalty cases, said, "Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans."
During the April 6, 1992, execution of Donald Harding in Arizona, it took 11 minutes for death to occur. The prison warden stated that he would quit if required to conduct another gas chamber execution. Following Harding's execution, Arizona voted that all persons condemned after November 1992 would be executed by lethal injection.
Following the execution of Robert Alton Harris, a federal court declared that "execution by lethal gas under the California protocol is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual." By the late 20th century, most states had switched to methods considered to be more humane, such as lethal injection. California's gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison was converted to an execution chamber for lethal injection.
As of 2010, the last person to be executed in the gas chamber was German national Walter LaGrand, sentenced to death before 1992, who was executed in Arizona on March 3, 1999. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that he could not be executed by gas chamber, but the decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The gas chamber was formerly used in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Oregon. Six states, Arizona, California, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri and Wyoming, authorize lethal gas if lethal injection cannot be administered, the condemned committed their crime before a certain date, or the condemned chooses to die in the gas chamber. In October 2010, New York governor David Paterson signed a bill rendering gas chambers illegal for use by humane societies and other animal shelters.
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When executions by gas chambers are conducted in the United States, the general protocol is as follows. First, the executioner will place a quantity of potassium cyanide (KCN) pellets into a compartment directly below the chair in the chamber. The condemned person is then brought into the chamber and strapped into the chair, and the airtight chamber is sealed. At this point the executioner will pour a quantity of concentrated sulfuric acid (H2SO4) down a tube that leads to a small holding tank directly below the compartment containing the cyanide pellets. The curtain is then opened, allowing the witnesses to observe the inside of the chamber. The prison warden then asks the condemned individual if he or she wishes to make a final statement. Following this, the executioner(s) throws a switch/lever to cause the cyanide pellets to drop into the sulfuric acid, initiating a chemical reaction that generates hydrogen cyanide (HCN) gas:
The gas is visible to the condemned, and he/she is advised to take several deep breaths to speed unconsciousness in order to prevent unnecessary suffering. Accordingly, execution by gas chamber is especially unpleasant for the witnesses to the execution due to the physical responses exhibited by the condemned during the process of dying. These responses can be violent, and can include convulsions and excessive drooling.
Following the execution, the chamber is purged of the gas through special scrubbers, and must be neutralized with anhydrous ammonia (NH3) before it can be opened. Guards wearing oxygen masks remove the body from the chamber. Finally, the prison doctor examines the individual in order to officially declare that he or she is dead and release the body to the next of kin.
One of the problems with the gas chamber is the inherent danger of dealing with such a toxic gas. Anhydrous ammonia is used to cleanse the chamber after cyanide gas has been used:
The anhydrous ammonia used to clean the chamber afterwards, and the contaminated acid that must be drained and disposed of, are both very poisonous.
Gas chambers were used in the 1930s and 1940s by the Third Reich initially as part of the "public euthanasia program" aimed at eliminating physically and intellectually disabled people and political undesirables. In June 1942 many hundreds of prisoners of the Neuengamme concentration camp, including 45 Dutch communists, were gassed in Bernburg Euthanasia Centre. At these locations, the preferred gas was carbon monoxide delivered in metal cylinders followed by the development of less expensive methods of mass murder during the Holocaust with the exhaust gas of gasoline-powered cars, trucks and army tanks utilized at designated death camps.
The Nazi concentration and extermination camps including Auschwitz and Majdanek used hydrogen cyanide in the form of Zyklon B. The first experimental gassing with Zyklon B took place at Auschwitz I on September 3, 1941 in the cellar of Block 11 using 600 Soviet POWs and 250 other prisoners who were sick and no longer able to work. However, the gas chosen by the command of Operation Reinhard was only the exhaust gas from internal combustion engines (detailed in the Gerstein Report among others). In order to "process" the masses of victims delivered in Holocaust trains each day, the killing centres at Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor during the most deadly phase of the Holocaust in Poland utilized the cheapest available killing agent for the barracks with the gas chambers in them. Along with the Nazi cross-European policy of genocide against the Jews, the SS "processed" there thousands of Romani people, homosexuals, physically and mentally disabled, intellectuals and the clergy from all occupied territories.
Gas chambers in vans (such as in Kulmhof) and those specially built of brick and mortar at concentration camps and extermination camps were used to kill several million people between 1941 and 1945. Some stationary gas chambers could kill 2,000 people at once. The use of gas chambers during the Holocaust was attested to by camp survivors as well as murderers themselves, including the Vrba-Wetzler report and testimony of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, not to mention other German staff members and soldiers.
Most gas chambers were dismantled or destroyed when Soviet troops got close, except at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Majdanek. The blown up gas chamber at Auschwitz I was reconstructed after the war as a memorial, but without a door in its doorway and without the wall that originally separated the gas chamber from a washroom. The door that had been added when the gas chamber was converted into an air raid shelter was left intact.
In the eastern territories, the mass executions by exhaust gas were performed by the Einsatzgruppen in specially modified vans, known as gaswagen (variously translated as "gas wagon", "gas van", or "gas car") delivered from Berlin.
Kwon Hyok, a former head of security at Camp 22, described laboratories equipped with gas chambers for suffocation gas experiments, in which three or four people, normally a family, are the experimental subjects. After undergoing medical checks, the chambers are sealed and poison is injected through a tube, while scientists observe from above through glass. In a report reminiscent of an earlier account of a family of seven, Kwon claims to have watched one family of two parents, a son and a daughter die from suffocating gas, with the parents trying to save the children using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for as long as they had the strength. Kwon's testimony was supported by documents from Camp 22 describing the transfer of prisoners designated for the experiments. The documents were identified as genuine by Kim Sang Hun, a London based expert on Korea and human rights activist. A press conference in Pyongyang, organized by North Korean authorities, denounced this.
In his book, Le Crime de Napoléon, French historian Claude Ribbe has claimed that in the early 19th century, Napoleon used poison gas to put down slave rebellions in Haiti and Guadeloupe. Based on accounts left by French officers, he alleges that enclosed spaces including the holds of ships were used as makeshift gas chambers where sulfur dioxide gas (probably generated by burning sulfur, which would have been readily available from volcanoes in the area) was used to execute up to 100,000 rebellious slaves. These claims remain controversial.
Gas chambers have also been used for animal euthanasia, using carbon monoxide as the lethal agent. Sometimes a box filled with anesthetic gas is used to anesthetize small animals for surgery or euthanasia.