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Federal judge upholds Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol

Oklahoma State Penitentiary houses Oklahoma's death row prisoners.
Quinton Chandler / StateImpact Oklahoma
Oklahoma State Penitentiary houses Oklahoma's death row prisoners.

Attorneys for Oklahoma death row inmates are fighting a legal challenge against the state’s controversial three-drug lethal injection protocol.

A district court ruled it constitutional on Monday.

Federal Judge Stephen Friot ruled the protocol does not violate Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, according to the Associated Press. He said the protocol is in line with requirements laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The protocol and ones similar to it, which have led to botched executions in Oklahoma and several other states, uses a drug called midazolam. The drug is typically used for sedation, but not necessarily to kill pain. Plaintiffs argue those undergoing the operation could be experiencing severe pain, but the drug used for paralysis would keep them from exhibiting it.

State officials rely on clandestine procurement practices and use midazolam instead of other anesthetics because drugmakers have publicly refused to sell their medications for use in executions, an issue scholars and attorneys have also called risky.

Jennifer Moreno, an attorney for the Oklahoma death row prisoners, said they will look at options to appeal the ruling.

In a Monday afternoon news release, Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor said he plans to seek execution dates of death row inmates this week from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. The Oklahoman reports that could be as many as 28 executions over the next two years.

A torturous history

For years, executions in Oklahoma have been gruesome and filled with protocol violations.

In October, in the state's first execution since 2015, John Grant convulsed and vomited repeatedly after being administered the three-drug cocktail. Since then, though, executions have been described by witnesses as uneventful and without complications.

Executions had been on pause in Oklahoma following the near-execution of Richard Glossip in 2015, and the botched lethal injections of Charles Warner in 2015 and Clayton Lockett in 2014.

Glossip was scheduled to die in September 2015. Then-Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a last-minute stay of execution for Glossip when it was discovered the Department of Corrections received a shipment of potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride, as required in the state's execution protocol.

An autopsy report revealed the state used the wrong drug — again, potassium acetate — to execute Warner in January 2015. According to witnesses, Warner said, "It feels like acid," and "My body is on fire" while being given the three-drug cocktail.

Lockett's April 2014 execution was also botched. A report issued after his death found that after trying for 51 minutes to find a vein, a phlebotomist misplaced the IV line intended to deliver the lethal cocktail of drugs directly into Lockett's bloodstream. Instead, the cocktail was delivered to the surrounding tissue.

Lockett writhed on the gurney and mumbled before being pronounced dead 43 minutes after the procedure began. An investigation later revealed that the faulty insertion of the intravenous line and lack of training of the execution team contributed to the problems.

In January 2014, Oklahoma executed Michael Lee Wilson by lethal injection. Shortly after his execution started, Wilson's final words were, "I feel my whole body burning."

Updated: June 6, 2022 at 8:56 PM CDT
Updated to include information from Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor.
Catherine Sweeney was StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter from 2020 to 2023.
Ryan LaCroix is the Director of Content and Audience Development for KOSU.
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