Oklahoma

Oklahoma

Eric Holder Advocates for a Hold on Executions

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recommended that all executions be put on hold while the Supreme Court is considering Glossip v. Gross, a case involving Oklahoma's lethal injection procedure. Speaking for himself, rather than the administration, at a press luncheon on February 17, Holder said, "I think a moratorium until the Supreme Court makes that decision would be appropriate." Holder has previously criticized state secrecy in lethal injections, but voiced broader concerns about executing the innocent in his remarks: “Our system of justice is the best in the world. It is comprised of men and women who do the best they can, get it right more often than not, substantially more right than wrong. But there's always the possibility that mistakes will be made...There is no ability to correct a mistake where somebody has, in fact, been executed. And that is from my perspective the ultimate nightmare.” Holder said that the Department of Justice's review of the death penalty, which President Obama ordered after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, is still underway, and is unlikely to be finished before Holder steps down as Attorney General.

January's Executions Underscore Core Death Penalty Problems

Even as executions have declined in the U.S., those being carried out often illustrate serious problems that have plagued the death penalty for many years. Of the six executions January, two (in Florida and Oklahoma) involved a lethal injection protocol that is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia executed Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Warren Hill, an inmate who was found intellectually disabled by state doctors, but who failed to meet the state's highly unusual standard of proving his disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Texas executed Robert Ladd, an inmate with an IQ of 67. Texas courts have devised their own largely unscientific criteria for determining intellectual disabilty. That leaves Arnold Prieto, also executed in Texas. He was offered a plea bargain and probably would have been spared if he had testified against his co-defendants. Of those involved in the brutal crime, only Prieto received the death penalty.

Supreme Court Agrees to Review Oklahoma's Lethal Injections

On January 23 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed  to hear a challenge to Oklahoma's lethal injection procedures, particularly its use of midazolam that was used in three botched executions in 2014. Four Oklahoma inmates asked the Court to review the state's procedures, but one of them, Charles Warner, was executed before the Court agreed to take the case. It is likely the other three defendants will be granted stays. When Warner was executed, Justice Sotomayor along with three other Justices, dissented from the denial of a stay, saying, "I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol...." The case will be argued in April and likely decided by the end of June. The questions presented by the petitioners appear below. Florida uses the same drugs as Oklahoma.

NEW VOICES: Anesthesiologist Points to Risks in Upcoming Executions

As Oklahoma prepared to carry out its first execution on January 15 since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014, anesthesiologist Dr. Mark Heath of Columbia University Medical School expressed serious concerns about the drugs it will use, particularly one that paralyzes the inmate: "Oklahoma and other states ... should abandon the barbaric use of paralyzing drugs entirely." He explained that when the prisoner is given paralytic drugs, he "will die of suffocation whether they are unconscious or they are wide awake." Dr. Heath also criticized the use of midazolam, which Oklahoma plans to use again, despite the problems in multiple states with that drug in 2014. He said it is particularly ill-suited as the first lethal injection drug because it is a weaker anesthetic than barbiturates, such as pentobarbital. In an op-ed, he concluded, "Oklahoma and other states should not be executing prisoners with midazolam; they should not proceed in the absence of qualified medical practitioners; they should only use FDA-approved drugs, and they should abandon the barbaric, outmoded and unnecessary use of chemical paralysis – ....The public and the courts could then return their attention to the more important questions and debate surrounding the death penalty enterprise."

Oklahoma Warden Called Recent Execution a "Bloody Mess"

Attorneys for several inmates in Oklahoma have asked a federal court to stay their executions and presented new accounts of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett (pictured) as evidence the state's execution procedure is unconstitutionally cruel. The recent filing included statements describing the execution from the warden, an attending paramedic, and a victims' services advocate who witnessed the execution. Warden Anita Trammell called the execution, "a bloody mess," and said, "I was kind of panicking. Thinking oh my God. He’s coming out of this. It’s not working.” Edith Shoals, a victims' services advocate for the Department of Corrections, witnessed the execution from an overflow room and said, “It was like a horror movie … [Lockett] kept trying to talk.” The paramedic who participated in the execution described the doctor's failed attempts to insert an IV, saying, "I don’t think he realized that he hit the artery and I remember saying you’ve got the artery. We’ve got blood everywhere." Lockett was pricked at least 16 times in attempts to insert the IV. The doctor declined to set a backup IV line, as called for in the execution protocol, explaining, "We had stuck this individual so many times, I didn’t want to try and do another line." Mike Oakley, a former general counsel for the Department of Corrections, said "political pressure" played a role in the selection of execution drugs. “[T]he attorney general’s office, being an elective office, was under a lot of pressure. The, the staff over there was under a lot of pressure to, to say, ‘Get it done,’ you know, and so, yeah, I, I think it was a joint decision but there was, I got to say there was a definite push to make the decision, get it done, hurry up about it.”

Lawsuit Following Botched Oklahoma Execution Names Participating Doctor

On October 14 a lawsuit was filed by the family of Clayton Lockett (l.) against the state of Oklahoma for damages related to his botched execution in April. The suit alleges “unsound procedures and inadequately trained personnel” and claims that Dr. Johnny Zellmer was the physician present at Lockett's execution. The family asserts that Zellmer, “was willing to, and did in fact, conduct the medical experiment engaged in by Defendants to kill Clayton Lockett regardless of the fact that these chemicals had never been approved or tested by any certifying body.” Oklahoma law makes the names of its execution team, including participating doctors, secret. In Lockett's execution, most of the execution team was out of view of witnesses, but the doctor who pronounced death was visible. Oklahoma has delayed all executions for the remainder of 2014 in order to allow time to obtain lethal injection drugs and prepare personnel. The state revised its execution protocol and remodeled its execution chamber after Lockett's execution, but retained the controversial drug midazolam and secrecy surrounding the sources of drugs and personnel.

Botched Execution Results in $100,000 Renovation and Fewer Media Witnesses

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections recently gave the media a tour (see video here) of its newly renovated execution chamber. The state spent over $100,000 updating the rooms in response to the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April. Among the changes are a new gurney (an "electric bed"), a new intercom, and an atomic clock. Previously, communications included colored sticks pushed through a wall, with a red stick indicating something had gone wrong. Correctional officials were secretive about the participation of medical personnel, citing ongoing litigation. The state has said it will reduce the number of media witnesses from twelve to five. The ACLU and two media outlets have asked a judge to stop the state from reducing the number of media witnesses. "They took a process already corrupted by secrecy that had already led to at least one botched execution, and managed somehow to make it even more difficult for the people of Oklahoma and their representatives in the media to know anything about that process," said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. (Image: The Guardian, link to video in text above).

Federal Judge Calls Oklahoma Execution Plan Unrealistic

Twenty-one Oklahoma death row inmates, including three with upcoming execution dates, have filed suit against the state of Oklahoma challenging the state's lethal injection protocol. At a hearing in the case on September 18, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot urged the state to stay the executions, which are scheduled for November and December, saying, "It does not seem realistic to me that the steps that need to be taken can hardly be completed between now and then." The inmates have asked that the state be prevented from executing them “using the drugs and procedures employed in the attempt to execute Clayton Lockett, or similarly untried, untested and unsound drugs and procedures.” The state is currently revising its protocol, but the director of the Department of Corrections has said he will need time to train his staff on the new protocol. Patti Ghezzi, an attorney representing the death row inmates, told the judge that the inmates seek a finding that Lockett's execution violated the Eighth Amendment. “We do not want our plaintiffs to suffer the cruel and unusual punishment that Clayton Lockett suffered," Ghezzi said.

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