Jewish groups have failed to stop Arizona from offering a gas chamber as an execution method


(JTA) – An unusual scenario played out in Arizona recently: The son of a Jewish woman who fled the Nazis was asked if he wanted to be executed by the same gas the Nazis once used.

Frank Atwood, who was convicted of murdering an 8-year-old girl in 1984, has been on death row for decades. For his method of execution he was given the choice between lethal injection, Arizona’s default method, or a gas chamber — which the state had refurbished last year in preparation for possibly killing Atwood and one other death row inmate.

Arizona’s intent to restart gas executions, and the state’s purchase of materials to make hydrogen cyanide — a version of which, Zyklon B, was used by the Nazis to murder Jews in Auschwitz — is strongly opposed by its Jewish community. In February, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix and two members of the Jewish community partnered with the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the state over its planned use of the gas, calling the punishment “cruel and inhumane.”

But a superior court judge threw out the suit in April, saying that the Jewish community had failed to sufficiently challenge the law’s constitutionality, and that the state’s constitution permits execution by gas in some cases. 

As of now, the state does not plan to use the gas for future death-row cases; Arizona abolished the use of lethal gas via a 1992 constitutional amendment. But the law still allows gas to be used in executions of people who were originally sentenced prior to that year.

Still, the lawsuit filed by the Jewish groups and the ACLU claims that local Holocaust survivors are “horrified at being taxed to implement the same machinery of cruelty that was used to murder their loved ones.” Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joan Sinclair said such a claim did not represent “a distinct and palpable injury to those plaintiffs outside of an allegation of generalized harm that is shared alike by a large class of citizens.”

A handful of other states, including California, still permit execution by gas, but Arizona is the only one with a working gas chamber. The last person to be executed in it was German citizen Walter LaGrand in 1999, a case that provoked international outrage, including in Germany.

Atwood’s lawyer has told press that his client’s Jewish mother fled Nazis in Austria in 1939, but that Atwood himself has since been baptized in the Greek Orthodox church.

As for his method, the Associated Press reported that Atwood did not make a choice, meaning the state will opt for the default lethal injection over gas. He is scheduled to be executed June 8.


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