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Jack Kevorkian's Aide Pushed Carbon Monoxide for Executions

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Jack Kevorkian has been dead for three years, but his longtime assistant says the euthanasia activist known as Dr. Death may be the solution to America's execution problem.

Neal Nicol is trying to convince death-penalty states to abandon lethal injections — which have been undermined by drug shortages and screw-ups — in favor of an old Kevorkian standby: carbon monoxide.

The medical technician told NBC News that he helped Kevorkian, who died in 2011, carry out at least 60 assisted suicides using the toxic gas and a makeshift contraption.

"It was an extremely painless passing," Nicol said.

"Death comes within minutes. There are no twitches, movements, or signs of discomfort at all."

That description stands in stark contrast to witness reports from a recent Oklahoma execution that went so wrong it had to be halted and drew condemnation from the White House.

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 A carbon monoxide tank and mask sit on the prosecutor's table in 1996 during the assisted suicide trial of retired pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian, right. Jeff Kowalsky/Pool; AP file

Rapist and murderer Clayton Lockett appeared to regain consciousness and writhe in pain midway through his lethal injection using a new drug combination after the state ran out of its previous one.

The April 29 debacle brought wider attention to developments on the death-penalty front: drug companies refusing to sell their products for executions, states buying chemicals from less-regulated pharmacies behind a veil of secrecy, and prisons launching untested protocols.

Executions have been put on hold in several states, and the scramble for the tools of death has become so desperate that Missouri's attorney general wants the state to open its own execution pharmacy and Tennessee's governor brought back the electric chair as a backup.

But Nicol says if states are serious about finding a way to put people to death without violating the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, they need to consult the experts.

And who knew more about delivering death than Kevorkian?

The ex-pathologist served eight years in prison for a lethal injection, but many of his 130 assisted suicides were carried out with carbon monoxide.

Nicol said they bought the oxygen-blocker from specialty gas suppliers and kept it in a canister. That was hooked up to a vented face mask placed over the face of the client.

"Totally painless, placid, non-invasive," Nicol said. "Their body doesn't recognize the fact that they are not getting oxygen. They just go to sleep."

 Dr. Jack Kevorkian, right, attends the Detroit premiere of the HBO film "You Don't Know Jack" with Neal Nicol in 2010. Bill Pugliano / Getty Images file

Nicol has written to law-enforcement groups and the governors of execution states, trying to get them interested in exploring carbon monoxide. He has gotten no response.

Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno, an expert on executions, said what worked for Kevorkian will not necessarily work for prison systems.

"It's not just the machine or the drugs," she said.

"Jack Kevorkian was very experienced. He had created this machine. He researched the physical conditions of the people he was working with. He was the one who administered it.

"But if you're going to have prison officials doing it, you're going to have the same problems we've always had. Prison officials just don't have the expertise to do something like this."

Denno, who thinks the firing squad may be the most fool-proof method, doesn't expect any prison officials to jump at Nicol's idea, especially when every change to execution protocols unleashes a fresh round of litigation.

"Departments of correction are hesitant to try anything new," she said.

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