Media Contact

February 15, 2022

ACLU sues on behalf of Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix to prevent Arizona Department of Corrections from using the same gas used by Nazi Germany to kill millions of Jewish and other people.

Phoenix, AZ — Challenging the use of cyanide gas in executions, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona and law firm DLA Piper have filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry (ADCRR), ADCRR Director David Shinn, and Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Filed on behalf of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix (JCRC) and two individual taxpayer plaintiffs, the lawsuit seeks a court ruling that the use of cyanide gas violates the protection against cruel and unusual punishment guaranteed by the Arizona Constitution. Such a ruling would stop the state of Arizona from using cyanide gas in any executions and further prevent the state from using taxpayer dollars on its cyanide gas program.

Although Arizona voters overwhelmingly voted against the use of lethal gas in 1992, people sentenced to death before November 23, 1992, remain under the old law that permits lethal gas as an option. For the first time in years, Arizona is now preparing to use cyanide gas as a method of execution once again. In March 2021, Attorney General Brnovich announced that his office would initiate a return to executions and pledged that his office would ensure that the remaining 20 individuals on death row who have exhausted their appeals will be executed before his term expires in 2022.

“Under no circumstances should the same method of execution used to murder over one million people, including Jews, during the Holocaust be used in the execution of people on death row,” said Jared Keenan, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Arizona. “Arizona has acknowledged the horrors of cyanide gas as a method of execution and eliminated it in all but a narrow set of cases — it’s time the court eliminates the use of cyanide gas for execution once and for all. Regardless of where people stand on the matter of capital punishment, it’s clear that use of this barbaric practice is cruel and must be abolished.”

There are currently 115 death row prisoners in Arizona — seventeen were convicted prior to 1992 and have the option to choose between lethal injection and lethal gas as the method of execution. However, regardless of the individual's decision, the state must use taxpayer funds to prepare for the potential use of lethal gas. ADCRR has already spent thousands of taxpayer funds to refurbish the gas chamber, purchase the cyanide gas compound, and pay for the cost of testing. That number will undoubtedly increase as the state continues to seek the execution of individuals sentenced to death in Arizona. 

“We at JCRC are deeply troubled by the state’s potential use of hydrogen cyanide as a means of execution, and the provision of taxpayer funds to support this horrific practice,” said Tim Eckstein, chairman of the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix. “Approximately 80 Holocaust survivors currently call our state their home and many of these survivors are horrified at being taxed to implement the same machinery of cruelty that was used to murder their loved ones. It is appalling that Arizona has chosen to use the very same chemical compound that was used by the Nazis in Auschwitz to murder more than one million people.”

Arizona performed its last execution by cyanide gas in 1999, when the state executed Walter LaGrand. Witnesses to his execution describe an agonizing and excruciating scene where it took approximately 18 minutes for LaGrand to die. Since then, no other state has executed a person using lethal gas.

The lawsuit, Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix v. State of Arizona, can be found here.