By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – State officials announced today, (Feb. 13), that Oklahoma would resume executions with an “updated version” of the lethal injection drugs used in past botched executions in Oklahoma.
A press conference was held by Attorney General Mike Hunter Thursday morning accompanied by Gov. Kevin Stitt, Rep. Harold Wright (R-Weatherford), Rep. Chris Kannady (R-Oklahoma City) and Department of Corrections director Scott Crow.
Hunter said the state has acquired a “reliable supply of drugs” to perform executions after the 150 day waiting period has passed. The three drugs that will continue to be used are midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride.
When asked, the AG refused to say what the source of the drugs would be.
According to the AG’s office, the updated protocol includes several of the recommendations made by the 2016 multicounty grand jury, such as a verification of execution drugs at every step in the process, and more training for the execution team.
AG Hunter and then Department of Corrections director Joe Allbaugh announced on March 15, 2018, that Oklahoma would be the first state to pursue a new execution protocol of nitrogen hypoxia, or inert gas inhalation. However, they have been unable to find a willing provider of the necessary equipment. State officials for a time said the government could build the device.
When a reporter asked about that possibility today, Hunter indicated the state would continue to pursue all avenues to utilize nitrogen hypoxia for future executions.
“The announcement today of Oklahoma’s return to its troubled three-drug midazolam protocol should have been accompanied by a commitment to complete transparency and a demonstration of the efforts the state has taken to fix the significant problems that have plagued recent executions efforts, but it was not,” said Dale Baich, Assistant Federal Public Defender, District of Arizona, and one of the attorneys representing Oklahoma death row prisoners in a federal lethal injection lawsuit.
“Instead, Oklahoma officials announced the state will revert to its problematic midazolam protocol and provided no assurances that the state is prepared to carry out executions in a manner that comports with the Constitution. Oklahoma’s history of mistakes and malfeasance reveals a culture of carelessness around executions that should give everyone pause.
Baich added, “In the next few days, we will advise the federal court and continue with the ongoing litigation challenging the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s protocol.”
The same lethal injection drugs were used in the infamous botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014, launching a flurry of global media coverage and litigation. The lethal injection combination was also used to execute Charles Warner in January 2015, only later to find that the “wrong drug” potassium acetate was substituted for potassium chloride.
The scheduled execution of Richard Glossip in September 2015 was authorized to use the same ‘wrong drug’ by then Gov. Mary Fallin’s general counsel Steve Mullins, but halted by the governor in time to spare Glossip’s life.
The execution fiasco led to the resignation of three state officers and a multi-county grand jury investigation lasting more than four months, along with the moratorium of capital punishment in Oklahoma that has continued since September 2015.
Now that the announcement has come that Oklahoma will return to the lethal injection protocol, the state has agreed not to seek any execution date until at least 150 days after the attorneys for the death row inmates receive the information and have time to appeal.
“We fundamentally disagree with the Governor and the State Attorney General. There is simply no humane way for the government to kill its people,” said Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oklahoma. “Oklahoma’s experiment with the death penalty is a miserable and grisly failure. Death sentences are handed out arbitrarily and magnify the biases that exist within our criminal legal system. Whether someone is executed depends more on which county they happen to be in, their race or gender, the race or gender of the victim and whether they had the financial means to hire adequate legal counsel. Statistics have shown that more than 10 percent of the people with a death sentence have been wrongfully convicted.
“The government’s actions remain shrouded in secrecy and they continue to refuse to share important details of the execution protocol. In short, the government’s stated position is ‘trust us.’ The Attorney General stated he fully expects this protocol to be challenged in court,” Kiesel added. “The entire ordeal seems like more of an election year stunt than an attempt to carry out the law, but one where people’s lives and our Constitutional rights are on the line. So forgive us for not trusting the government on this one. Combine the random nature of who gets the death penalty, with the state’s repeated failures in carrying out executions, the government’s refusal to share information, and the possibility of Oklahoma executing an innocent person, and it just seems like common sense that we should not trust the government with this awesome and irrevocable power.”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there have been 167 death row exonerations in the US since 1973.
“Gov. Stitt appeals to sympathy for victims’ families to justify the resumption of the death penalty in Oklahoma. I have great empathy for the victims’ families. No one can appreciate the loss that they have suffered and continue to suffer. I do not understand how killing another person promotes healing,” stated Rev. Don Heath, chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
“Kansas has only had ten executions since 1950 and none since 1965. A prison sentence is considered justice in Kansas,” Heath said. “Why does Oklahoma require death? How is justice served by strapping a defenseless prisoner to a bed and injecting them with lethal drugs or putting on a mask to starve them of oxygen? The death penalty brings justice only if you define justice as retribution and vengeance.”
Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City, issued the following statement: “We need to stop spending taxpayer money to kill human beings. We deserve justice for these heinous crimes, but we don’t end the cycle of violence by committing more violence. In all of these cases, we lost a life, and the death penalty only serves to further devalue human dignity. We have the capability now to punish criminals and protect society without killing in return. I call on our legislators and Gov. Stitt to make a change for Oklahoma and choose non-lethal ways to ensure justice.”
The Catholic Conference of Oklahoma has offered overwhelming support for Rep. Jason Dunnington’s House Bill 2876, which proposes to follow the lead of more than 20 states by repealing the death penalty.
“No improvement in the protocol will address the fact that midazolam is an inappropriate drug to use in executions,” said Robert Dunham, director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Midazolam is not capable of knocking somebody out and keeping them insensate during the period in which other drugs are administered.”
The first ever study of its kind, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, released April 2017, examined all aspects of Oklahoma’s death penalty system. The report issued a unanimous recommendation that the state extend the moratorium on the death penalty which had at that time been in place for more than two years.
Former Gov. Brad Henry, the Commission co-chair, stated, “Due to the volume and seriousness of the flaws in Oklahoma’s capital punishment system, Commission members recommend that the moratorium on executions be extended until significant reforms are accomplished.”
Regarding the state’s execution protocol, the report stated, “Oklahoma should adopt the most humane and effective method of execution possible, which currently appears to be the one-drug (barbiturate) lethal injection protocol. Oklahoma should develop a process for continuous review of its execution protocol to ensure that the state is using the most humane and effective method possible.”
Henry said, “Our hope is for this report is to foster an informed discussion among all Oklahomans about whether the death penalty can be implemented in a way that eliminates the unacceptable risk of executing the innocent, as well as the unacceptable risks of inconsistent, discriminatory and inhumane application of the death penalty.”
This story was updated on Friday, Feb 14, 2020.