Lethal Gas

Frank Atwood: Phoenix Federal Court to Decide Whether Arizona Must Designate New Execution Method

Posted by emily on June 01, 2022
Execution News, News, What's New / No Comments

Mr. Atwood has requested an alternative, constitutional method of execution, contending that forcing him to choose between cyanide gas and lethal injection violates his rights

The federal court could grant a preliminary injunction staying Mr. Atwood’s execution while it determines whether Arizona must designate new method of execution

PHOENIX—At a hearing scheduled for Friday, June 3 at 2:00pm PT, the U.S. District Court of the District of Arizona will determine whether to grant a preliminary injunction temporarily halting Frank Atwood’s execution while it weighs questions related to Arizona’s methods of execution. Mr. Atwood asserts that Arizona has deprived him of his right to choose a constitutional execution method because Arizona’s lethal injection protocol cannot be applied to him without causing unnecessary, extreme pain, and Arizona has failed to offer a valid choice of lethal gas.

“Before the court now lies the decision to stay Mr. Atwood’s execution or allow Arizona to violently torture an elderly, physically disabled man who shouldn’t be on death row in the first place,” said Joseph Perkovich, counsel for Mr. Atwood.

The Arizona Constitution guarantees a choice between lethal injection or lethal gas. Lethal injection is the most frequently botched method of execution, with many recent executions going catastrophically wrong. Physically strapping Mr. Atwood, who suffers from a severe form of spinal deterioration, to the lethal injection table will be painful and torturous and carries the threat of a botched execution.

Mr. Atwood has demanded the use of nitrogen gas, a constitutional gas method, but the State insists that it will only use cyanide gas, a barbaric execution method deployed by Nazis during the Holocaust and one that courts have previously rejected.  

The District Court will hold its hearing in Phoenix a week after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Mr. Atwood’s request to allow review of evidence of Mr. Atwood’s innocence. At this stage in a death penalty case, it is rare for a Ninth Circuit panel to have requested oral arguments.

“The fact that the Ninth Circuit requested oral arguments, and deliberated questions about Mr. Atwood’s innocence and the state’s suppression of evidence implicating an alternate suspect for several days, demonstrates that the Court had concerns and that they did not easily dismiss these concerns,” said Amy Knight, who argued before the Ninth Circuit on behalf of Mr. Atwood. 

Mr. Atwood, who has always maintained his innocence, was convicted in a circumstantial case that lacked hard physical evidence or eyewitnesses. After thoroughly inspecting Mr. Atwood’s car, the FBI failed to find any blood, hair, soil, fingerprints or other physical evidence connecting the victim to the inside of the car, which was supposedly used to transport the victim. There were also no eyewitnesses to the abduction. However, several eyewitnesses came forward and pointed police in the direction of another suspect. On the evening of the victim’s disappearance, multiple witnesses spotted the victim, accurately describing her and her distinctive clothing, at the Tucson Mall. According to witnesses, the victim appeared distressed and in the control of an unknown woman. Mr. Atwood’s whereabouts were accounted for during the time of these eyewitness sightings and the timeline police proposed for Mr. Atwood’s alleged actions that day is simply not possible.

“Circumstantial evidence is not enough to torture and execute someone – especially if the evidence points to someone else. But that’s exactly what Arizona is about to do,” said Perkovich.

Still pending in Mr. Atwood’s case is other litigation pertaining to the safety and sterility of the lethal injection drugs Arizona intends to use to execute Mr. Atwood. Arizona has refused to identify the source of its drugs or to provide adequate testing to demonstrate that the drugs will work as intended. Just weeks ago, state officials scrambled to make a new batch of drugs the day before the execution of Clarence Dixon, after his attorneys argued that the vial the state intended to use was in fact already expired.


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Frank Atwood Execution: For Media

Posted by emily on May 04, 2022
Execution News, What's New / No Comments


Today (May 3, 2022), the Attorney General has secured a warrant to execute Frank Atwood in 35 days, on June 8, 2022. Arizona Constitutional law requires Mr. Atwood to choose between two methods: lethal injection or lethal gas. Each method can be conducted constitutionally under United States Supreme Court precedent, but the Arizona Department of Corrections is unprepared to conduct either one without knowingly inflicting torturous pain on Mr. Atwood, picking up from Arizona’s last execution, nearly eight years ago in July 2014, which grossly violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments during a two-hour killing of Joseph Wood—entailing the use of 15 injections, instead of one, and his gasping for air over 600 times before succumbing.

Mr. Atwood now imminently faces deciding which method the Department of Corrections will use, knowing that under its procedures, which call for either compounded pentobarbital injection or cyanide gas, either will cause him maximum pain and suffering. This Hobson’s choice, unless corrected, condemns Mr. Atwood to a violent, severely painful death, whichever method is selected. Unless he is dissuaded from choosing cyanide gas as somehow the lesser of two evils, Mr. Atwood will be the first person in this century to die in Arizona’s gas chamber by Nazi Germany’s method for carrying out its Holocaust.


Rather than designating a constitutional lethal gas, such as nitrogen or helium which would lawfully, simply, and humanely end life, the Department of Corrections’ current published protocol, last revised April 20, 2022, has designated sodium cyanide, a form of poison gas known as Zyklon B when Nazi Germany used it to exterminate millions. In modern times, Arizona has executed two men by cyanide gas, the last occurring in 1999. In 2021, the Department of Corrections renewed its specification of sodium cyanide gas for use in lethal gas executions. Further, records published that year also reflect that the Department failed to procure the correct form of cyanide, buying potassium cyanide instead. Witnesses to the Arizona cyanide gas executions in 1992 and 1999 reported the prolonged, violent convulsing, coughing, and agonizing deaths.  

Despite the known horrors of cyanide gas, Mr. Atwood, whose mother escaped Nazi persecution in her childhood home of Austria, must now be persuaded to forego such a death and to choose lethal injection. Arizona law requires that he designates by May 19, 2022, twenty days prior to his execution date, whether he will select a lethal gas execution. Mr. Atwood’s disability, which stems from years of neglect and mistreatment at the hands of the Department of Corrections, coupled with the Department’s preparedness to resume using compounded chemicals in lethal injections, execution by execution preparing a new batch of drugs, creates an unconscionable dilemma between avoiding cyanide gas and accepting the compounded pentobarbital protocol.

Mr. Atwood, 66, is disabled by a severe degenerative spinal condition and has been bound to a wheelchair for years. The Department of Corrections’ lethal injection protocol dictates that he will be stretched flat on his back on the execution table with his legs and feet restrained. Due to his spinal disease, strapping him to the execution table will cause the maximum severity of pain throughout his lower extremities, with pain signals to his body matching that which would result from medieval torture techniques. Thus, even if the Department were to have adequate execution chemicals prepared by an unidentified pharmacist and their compounded pentobarbital injection went exactly to plan, those plans will inflict on Mr. Atwood the severest conceivable level of pain. Despite new Arizona legal obligations following the Department’s 2014 debacle and designed to demonstrate the adequacy of lethal injection chemicals before their use in any execution, the Attorney General’s court filings since April 2021 have evaded the Department’s basic requirements to prove the compounded chemicals will be adequate to humanely cause death. In July 2021, the Arizona Supreme Court cancelled execution warrant scheduling due to the Attorney General’s admission that initial representations made about the compounding process were wildly inaccurate. And while those issues have not been resolved, the Arizona Supreme Court denied Mr. Atwood’s request for factual development and issued a warrant for his execution today. 

Mr. Atwood has always maintained his innocence in the 1985 Tucson disappearance and death of an 8-year-old girl, for which he was convicted in 1987 based on a largely circumstantial case and sentenced to death by a judge, not a jury. Over twenty years ago, Father Paisios, Abbot of the St. Anthony’s Monastery in Florence, baptized Mr. Atwood. Mr. Atwood is a devout observer and scholar of Greek Orthodoxy, which prepares him to meet his end at the hands of the State. Father Paisios intends to administer last rites to Mr. Atwood by physical contact and verbal recitations, but the faithful performance of this ancient sacrament in its traditional manner may be foreclosed by the need for Mr. Atwood to enter Arizona’s gas chamber to die by cyanide gas. In any case, religious exercise at this most critical moment is not satisfied merely by allowing the presence of a spiritual advisor in the execution chamber, the man receiving last rites must be lucid to receive them, not dissociating from his torturous pain.

End Note:

Article XXII, § 22 of the Arizona Constitution, provides that individuals sentenced to death for an offense committed before November 23, 1992, may elect lethal gas, which prior to that amendment was Arizona’s single method of execution since 1933. Mr. Atwood’s conviction concerns a crime committed in 1985.


The Department of Corrections presents false choices to Mr. Atwood, who is disabled and has been a wheelchair-user for many years. On the one hand is lethal injection, for which the Department is unprepared to proceed and, due to Mr. Atwood’s severe spinal condition, would inflict maximum pain throughout the process. On the other hand is cyanide gas, used by Nazi Germany to exterminate millions in the Holocaust. The State of Arizona needs a constitutional gas option and one is readily in reach. By designating cyanide gas, the Department is cynically forcing Mr. Atwood to accept the torture of a lethal injection, playing out a version of the grim fate that befell the last person subjected to that method in Arizona, who was strapped to the execution table for over two hours, hopelessly gasping for air over 600 times. If the Department fails to revise its procedures to provide a constitutional form of lethal gas, such as nitrogen, then Arizona law should be revised to permit execution by firing squad, a simple and inexpensive method used since the advent of firearms. This effective method of carrying out the death penalty is applicable in several states, though avoided by others because, perhaps, the process of shooting somebody in their heart or head is transparent and lacks what some consider to be the dignity that lethal injection lends to capital punishment. –Joseph Perkovich

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