gas chamber

gas chamber
an enclosure used for the execution of prisoners by means of a poisonous gas.

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▪ execution device
      method of executing condemned prisoners by lethal gas.

      The gas chamber was first adopted in the U.S. state of Nevada in 1921 in an effort to provide a more humane form of capital punishment. On Feb. 8, 1924, Gee Jon became the first person to be executed by lethal gas. By 1955, 11 U.S. states had adopted the gas chamber as their method of execution, but by the early 21st century it was a method in only two states (California and Missouri), where condemned prisoners were allowed to choose between lethal injection and lethal gas. From 1921 to 1972 (when the U.S. Supreme Court commenced its moratorium on the death penalty), lethal gas was applied in some 600 executions; from 1976 (when the moratorium ended) through the early 21st century, it was used rarely.

       California's lethal gas procedure (the most thoroughly documented) is carried out in a sealed, modified octagonal chamber. The inmate is strapped to a chair with holes in the seat, below which is placed a container of sulfuric acid, distilled water, and sodium cyanide crystals. The executioner pulls a lever that mixes the cyanide crystals into the sulfuric acid–water container to create the hydrocyanic gas that the inmate inhales. Although there is a consensus that cyanide affects many parts of the body, it is unclear at which point an individual becomes unconscious and/or dies because pain and consciousness are difficult to measure. In 1996 a federal appeals court unanimously held that California's statute authorizing lethal gas violated the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, based on a lower court's conclusion that gassed inmates can suffer an extreme amount of pain and that there is a substantial likelihood that such pain would last for several minutes. (Over time, eyewitnesses had also reported a number of long and gruesome lethal gas executions in California and other states.) The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on the constitutionality of lethal gas. It did, however, vacate the federal appeals court ruling that lethal gas was unconstitutional because the California legislature called for lethal injection unless a prisoner specifically requested lethal gas. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has considered California's gas chamber torturous and inhumane.

      Outside the United States no other country has adopted lethal gas as a constitutional method of carrying out capital punishment. During the Holocaust, however, Nazi Germany employed gas chambers for the purpose of killing Jews and other targeted groups. The chambers were established at concentration camps (concentration camp) and usually disguised as bathhouses. Men, women, and children were herded naked into the chambers after being told that they were going to take showers. The doors were closed, and poison gas was injected. See also extermination camp.

Deborah W. Denno

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Universalium. 2010.

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  • gas chamber — gas chambers N COUNT A gas chamber is a room that has been specially built so that it can be filled with poisonous gas in order to kill people or animals …   English dictionary

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  • gas chamber — noun instrument of execution consisting of a sealed chamber into which poison gas is introduced; used to kill people or animals (Freq. 2) • Syn: ↑death chamber • Hypernyms: ↑instrument of execution * * * noun, pl ⋯ bers [count] : a room in which… …   Useful english dictionary

  • gas chamber — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms gas chamber : singular gas chamber plural gas chambers a building or room where officials kill prisoners by filling the air with poison gas …   English dictionary

  • gas chamber — Synonyms and related words: Belsen, abattoir, aceldama, ax, beheading, block, burning, butchery, capital punishment, concentration camp, cross, crucifixion, death chair, death chamber, decapitation, decollation, defenestration, drop, electric… …   Moby Thesaurus

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