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Opponents of nitrogen executions bill cite Ohio's ban on gas for pet euthanasia

A close up of a restraint on the bed used for executions at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
Ron Corby
/
Statehouse News Bureau

Ohio outlawed putting down household pets by suffocating them with gas—or any non-anesthetic inhalant—less than a year ago, and all but a handful of lawmakers in both chambers backed that bill when it moved through the legislature in 2022.

With a GOP-backed bill introduced Tuesday to add hypoxia by nitrogen gas as a way of administering the death penalty, some Democrats have said it’s a double standard.

Senate Bill 164, which went into effect nine months ago, generally prohibits “an animal shelter from destroying a domestic animal by the use of a gas chamber.”

Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood), a longtime opponent of the death penalty, called the recently introduced House Bill 392 “barbaric.”

“We as the legislature said that is cruel and inhuman to do to an animal,” Antonio said in an interview. “Yet we have folks that are going to suggest that we do this to people on death row.”

Related: Former Ohio prisons director concerned about use of nitrogen suffocation in executions

Ohio's recent law surrounding pet euthanasia doesn't directly name nitrogen gas. But guidance from the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2020 advised against using nitrogen hypoxia on any mammal aside from—under some conditions—pigs, turkeys and chickens, calling it “distressing” for the rest.

Rep. Phil Plummer (R-Dayton) is leading the legislative charge with Rep. Brian Stewart (R-Ashville) to add nitrogen hypoxia, or asphyxiation with nitrogen gas, as a proper secondary execution procedure. HB 392’s introduction Tuesday came just days after Alabama became the first state to execute a man using it.

Plummer voted for the animal cruelty bill last legislative session and said he believes it’s not a fair line to draw. “That’s apples and oranges, when you’re comparing dogs,” Plummer said in an interview.

He thinks the focus is too often on death row inmates, he said, and not the victims and their families.

“I get tired of these liberals saying, 'Oh, this person suffered and twitched,’” he said. “Well, I mean, when you stab someone 39 times and kill them, where is the compassion for that person?”

So far, backers say 11 other Republicans have signed on as cosponsors of HB 392. Each legislative chamber would have to pass any change to how the state administers the death penalty, since presently, the only codified method is lethal injection.

Witnesses to the nitrogen-assisted execution in Alabama on Jan. 25 said 58-year-old Kenneth Smith “shook and writhed” during the procedure. But state officials said it was “textbook” and that more than 40 other condemned inmates have asked for nitrogen gas as the means for them to be put to death.

Sarah Donaldson covers government, policy, politics and elections for the Ohio Public Radio and Television Statehouse News Bureau. Contact her at sdonaldson@statehousenews.org.