By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK (March 15, 2018). Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh announced on Wednesday during a press conference at the State Capitol that the next method of execution in Oklahoma would be nitrogen hypoxia.
“After many hours of research, deliberation and conversations with the director, attorneys, and other stakeholders, we believe the best protocol to develop for executions in the state is inert gas inhalation,” Hunter said. “I will refer to it as IGI.”
Oklahoma is one of the 31 states that has had lethal injection as the primary method of execute. Like other states Oklahoma is finding that the drugs needed are hard to get and often extremely expensive.
Allbaugh said, “It’s been a mad hunt for drugs, ever since I arrived at the DOC in January 2016…to perform lethal injection in executions in Oklahoma. I was calling all around the world, to the back streets of the Indian subcontinent, to procure drugs.”
Allbaugh noted that they had decided to go with the IGI method ‘about a week ago.’ He said, “We’re just beginning. We’re not sure how this is going to unfold.”
In April 2015, Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law a bill allowing nitrogen gas as a state execution method.
Hunter said, “If lethal injection is held unconstitutional, or is unavailable, an execution shall be carried out by nitrogen hypoxia. We are exercising that option. We can no longer sit on the sidelines and wait for drugs.
“Using nitrogen, or an inert gas like helium hypoxia, will be effective, simple to administer, easy to obtain and requires no complex medical procedures,” Hunter continued, “This is the safest, the best and the most effective method available, and we’re moving forward.”
Critics were quick to point out one problem – no state has ever used this method of execution.
“We are concerned that Oklahoma is now pursuing a mode of execution that has not been tried anywhere before.” said Rev. Don Heath, OK-CADP chair. “We do not know what kind of trials on human guinea pigs will be done. We are not familiar with the data that Attorney General Mike Hunter referred to about its use in assisted suicides. We are hopeful that the court challenges will take years and that executions will continue to be on hold until the appeals are completed.
“The move to nitrogen hypoxia apparently is based on the pragmatic recognition that reputable doctors and pharmacists will not supply the drugs needed to participate in lethal injection because it violates the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm,” Heath added.
Oklahoma currently has 49 death row inmates, including 17 who have exhausted all appeals and are awaiting an execution date.
“There is significant documentary evidence, there’s a good deal of experience based on inert gas inhalation used with regard to assisted suicide,” Hunter contended.
When asked what modifications would be need to prepare the death chamber for the use of gas, Allbaugh replied, “I haven’t the foggiest idea.”
“We are deeply disappointed in the Attorney General’s decision to continue administering capital punishment in Oklahoma,” said the Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City. “The use of the death penalty, in any form, diminishes us all. When available, we should choose non-lethal ways to ensure justice and to protect society. I pray for the day that Oklahoma and other states will abolish capital punishment.”
Oklahoma’s track record with lethal injection has been under scrutiny since April 2014 after the infamous botched execution of Clayton Lockett made headlines worldwide. After thrashing on the gurney, writhing and groaning, it would be 43 minutes after the drug was administered before Lockett died.
Oklahoma has had a moratorium on the death penalty since October 2015 after the wrong drug, (potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride – the drug approved as a part of the state’s three-drug protocol) was nearly used to execute Richard Glossip. The Department of Corrections later said that the wrong drug had also been used in the January 2015 execution of Charles Warner in which he said, “My body is on fire.”
After the Glossip fiasco, a bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission was called to intensely study every aspect of the death penalty, from arrest to execution. In April 2015, the commission released a nearly 300-page report and announced 46 recommendations to the state’s execution protocol. The report concluded that “Oklahoma’s death penalty system is not working, and without major changes, Oklahoma risks executing innocent people.”
Ryan Kiesel, ACLU of Oklahoma Executive Director said, “In the time since a moratorium was placed on executions, the State has done absolutely nothing to inspire confidence that they are now able to successfully exercise the ultimate power of any government. Instead, Oklahoma’s leaders have demonstrated new levels of incompetence. Now these same politicians are drafting plans to kill human beings with methods that are unproven and untested among enlightened societies.
“To compound this error further, this announcement is silent on the 46 recommendations made by the bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission,” Kiesel said. “The conclusions drawn by this commission paint a picture of a system that fails at multiple points to provide the necessary safeguards in a system that ends with our government, in our name, killing an individual.”
Hunter said the administration of the gas would probably require the use of a mask placed over the inmate’s head, but he said the details would have to be worked out.
“Who are the experts on nitrogen and nitrogen hypoxia who will be brought in?” asked attorney Dale Baich, a federal public defender and one of the attorneys representing Oklahoma death row prisoners who are challenging the state’s execution protocol method.
“Instead of following the recommendations of the bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, the Department of Corrections chooses to take its own course by adopting an entirely new method of execution by nitrogen hypoxia,” Baich said. “Oklahoma is once again asking us to trust it as officials ‘learn-on-the-job,’ through a new execution procedure and method. How can we trust Oklahoma to get this right when the state’s recent history reveals a culture of carelessness and mistakes in executions?
Hunter said an “emotionally difficult” conference call was held earlier that morning with members of the victim’s families, adding “they have waited long enough for justice.”
This reporter asked if they had spoken to family members of those on death row. “What’s your point? Hunter asked. “I’ll address this question,” Allbaugh said. He continued to speak about the members of the victim’s families saying, “they should not be forgotten.”
Bill Babbit, a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), wrote in an article titled, The Forgotten Victims, “Families of the executed are invisible victims, hidden victims. People are not even thinking through the fact that when an execution is carried out, it’s going to leave a grieving family.”
Susannah Sheffer, director of the MVFHR project, No Silence, No Shame, added, “A lot of people hold the family responsible, a kind of ‘guilt by association.’
Baich concluded, “The state’s multicounty grand jury’s recommendation, which was echoed by the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission (p. 196, n. 204), was that if gas were to be used, experts should be brought in and a best practices study would be needed.”
Hunter reiterated, “We are at the very beginning of this process. We will provide updates as they become available.”
According to Hunter, the time frame is 90 – 120 days to complete the protocol, then a 150 day stay for a federal court review and to inform the attorneys of those on death row. “Fairly simultaneously we will inform the court of criminal appeals. Do the math…you’ve got 3 or 4 months, then 150 days…that’s the shortest period of time within which sentences could be scheduled,” Hunter said.
“The question Oklahomans must ask is not whether they support the death penalty, but rather, do they trust this government with the power to kill its citizens,” Kiesel said.
Anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean took to social media saying, “The suggestion by authorities that this new method is ‘more humane’ ignores the fact that it is an untried method, human experimentation, practiced by the state upon its citizens. More importantly, it ignores the unavoidable truths that there is no humane way to kill a conscious, thinking human being, and that the entire apparatus of capital punishment is deeply flawed and deeply wounding to us all.”