Executions to Resume in Oklahoma, Despite Questions About Lethal-Injection Drug

By
FILE - In this April 15, 2008 file photo, the gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary is pictured in McAlester, Okla.  Oklahoma investigators are poised to release a report Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014  into the flawed execution of Clayton Lockett, a death row inmate who gasped and writhed on a gurney after being injected with three lethal drugs. Gov. Mary Fallin ordered the investigation after it took 43 minutes to kill  Lockett on April 29. (AP Photo/File)
Photo: AP/Corbis

A federal judge ruled on Monday that Oklahoma can resume executions in January, using the same three-drug combination administered in the botched execution of inmate Clayton Lockett. One witness said his lengthy April execution “looked like torture,” and experts testified that midazolam does not properly sedate inmates before drugs that stop the heart and respiration are injected (one anesthesiologist said those drugs may have felt like “liquid fire“). Nevertheless, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot denied a request to delay the executions of 21 death-row inmates, saying there isn’t enough evidence that the method constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. “Lockett may well have experienced significant pain, but any such conclusion is laden with speculation,” Friot said.

The judge did concede that Lockett’s execution was “ineptly performed in some way.” The state says the incident was caused by an improperly set IV line, and since then Oklahoma has changed its execution protocol, upgrading its death chamber, staff training, and equipment. The new protocol calls for using 500 milligrams of midazolam, the same amount Florida has used in 11 executions. Experts said upping Lockett’s dosage to 100 milligrams didn’t necessarily make the sedative more effective, due to a “ceiling effect” with midazolam.

Also on Monday, the Arizona Department of Corrections issued a press release saying the execution of Joseph Wood in July, in which he was “gasping and snorting” for two hours, “was not botched.” A review commissioned by state corrections officials does not explain why the 50 milligrams of midazolam administerd to Wood did not work as expected. However, it concludes that he was unconscious and did not feel pain, citing the doctor who led the execution team, and “felt” that his heavy breathing was “reflexive.” The Pima County medical examiner added that “gasps, snorting and body reflexes are the normal bodily responses to dying, even in someone highly sedated.”

Arizona will still stop using a two-drug protocol, midazolam and hydromorphone, as a result of Wood’s execution. Charles Ryan, the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, said the state will search for better drugs to use in lethal injections, but if they are still unavailable Arizona will switch to the same three-drug combination used in Oklahoma.