OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) – Oklahoma officials announced Wednesday the end of a three-year-old moratorium on executions as they plan on using a first-of-its-kind nitrogen gas inhalation method to get around difficulties in getting lethal injection drugs.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh told reporters how “inert gas inhalation” was selected after “many hours of conversations with stakeholders” on the issue, including attorneys and lawmakers. The new execution protocol would result in a condemned inmate dying from hypoxia as the nitrogen gas denies them of oxygen in the death chamber.
“We have selected this method because of the well-documented fact that states across the country are struggling to find the proper drugs to perform lethal injections,” Hunter said at a press conference. “Trying to find alternative compounds or a prescribing authority willing to provide us drugs is becoming exceedingly difficult. We will not try to obtain the drugs illegally.”
Hunter said the state is going with nitrogen gas under a 2015 state law that allows for it if lethal injections have been ruled unconstitutional or if the drugs become unavailable.
Hunter cited comments by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who said death penalty opponents are committing “guerilla war” in making it impossible for states to get execution drugs for lethal injections. Death penalty opponents have successfully appealed to drug makers in recent years to stop making and selling the drugs to states for use in executions. States responded by approving replacement execution drugs provided by smaller compounding pharmacies.
Allbaugh said another deterrent for lethal injections is how inmates have dehydrated themselves in the past to make it difficult for the medical staff to carry them out.
Hunter added that the use of nitrogen gas would be “effective, simple to administer, easy to obtain and require no complex medical procedures.”
Wednesday’s announcement comes two years after an Oklahoma grand jury recommended the use of nitrogen gas after it declined to charge state officials for the botched 2015 execution of Charles Warner due to the wrong drugs being used. The state’s execution protocol at the time required potassium chloride to stop the heart, not the potassium acetate that was used. A convicted child-killer, Warner said his body was “on fire” and he twitched from his neck three minutes after the injection began. He died after 18 minutes. Warner’s execution was the last before the death penalty moratorium was imposed. The execution of Richard Glossip eight months after Warner’s execution was halted at the last minute by Gov. Mary Fallin when it was discovered the wrong drugs would be used again.
Warner’s was the first execution in the state after the grisly botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014. Witnesses say Lockett writhed in apparent agony, clenched his teeth and strained to lift his head after being injected with replacement drugs. The execution chamber was described as a gruesome “bloody mess” by execution team members due to attempts at tapping a second intravenous line in Lockett’s groin. The execution was quickly halted and officials drew the blinds on the execution chamber, but Lockett died 20 minutes after that.
The bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission formed after the Glossip debacle recommended in April 2017 the continuation of the then two-year-old moratorium on executions, citing “disturbing” findings that had its members questioning if executions of innocent people are prevented. The commission said the ban should stay until “significant reforms” are put in place to counteract “the volume and seriousness of the flaws” in the state’s capital punishment system.
Dale Baich, a federal public defender who represents several Oklahoma death row inmates, called Wednesday for complete transparency in the new execution method. He questioned if experts on nitrogen hypoxia would be brought in by the state, or if the state has conducted research on the “safety and legality” of the proposal.
“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 in a written statement. “This method has never been used before and is experimental. 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?”
Baich said the commission recognized “the most humane and effective” execution method as being a one-drug barbiturate lethal injection.
Oklahoma is not the only state exploring alternative execution methods due to the shortage of lethal injection drugs. The South Carolina Senate passed a measure last week that requires condemned inmates to die in the electric chair instead. Since 1995, inmates were given the choice between lethal injection or the electric chair. Proponents successfully argued that inmates who chose lethal injections, an option that cannot be carried out, would be effectively getting a life sentence. The measure is expected to become law when it makes it out of the South Carolina House of Representatives’ judiciary committee for a full vote.