A prisoner on death row in Alabama could be executed next week using a new untried method that deprives the body of oxygen.

James Houts, a state deputy attorney general, told a federal judge that it is “very likely” that nitrogen hypoxia may be available for Alan Miller’s execution next week.

The technique was approved by the state in 2018, but has never been used or tested.

It would cause death by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen, depriving him of the oxygen necessary to maintain bodily functions.

Miller was convicted of killing three men in a workplace shooting in 1999 near Birmingham, Alabama.

He is currently expected to be executed on September 22 by lethal injection, but is trying to stop him in the future.

Miller said he opted for nitrogen hypoxia instead of lethal injection due to fear of needles, but correction officers lost his documents.

In a court hearing Monday, United States District Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr asked if Alabama was ready to carry out executions for nitrogen hypoxia.

Mr. Houts said the method could be available as soon as next week and officials are finalizing a protocol on how it would work.

However, a final decision on when to use the new method would rest with Corrections Commissioner John Hamm.

Alan Miller was convicted of capital murder in a workplace shooting that killed three men in 1999. Image: AP

What is nitrogen hypoxia?

In 2018, Alabama became the third state to authorize the untested use of nitrogen for the execution of prisoners, after Oklahoma and Mississippi.

At the time, state law gave inmates a short window to select it as their preferred method of execution.

Nitrogen makes up 78% of the air inhaled by humans and is harmless when inhaled with oxygen. The theory behind the execution method is that changing the composition of the air to 100% nitrogen would cause the inmate to faint and then die from lack of oxygen.

States have begun to propose nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative method of execution due to the difficulty of obtaining lethal injection drugs and the ongoing litigation over the humanity of that method.

Those in favor have argued that it will be simpler and more humane.

‘Human experiment’

Trip Pittman, a Republican lawmaker who sponsored the 2018 legislation, theorized that it would be similar to how plane passengers pass out when a plane depressurizes.

However, critics have compared the method to human experimentation.

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Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said it was “not fully tested”.

While proponents theorized it would be quick and painless, Dunham noted that states once said the same thing about the electric chair.

The American Veterinary Medical Association’s euthanasia guidelines state that inert gas hypoxia is acceptable, under certain conditions, for euthanizing chickens, turkeys and pigs, but is not recommended for other mammals such as rats.

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