OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) – Oklahoma officials announced Thursday the state has secured a reliable new source of execution drugs and is resuming lethal injection executions after a five-year halt.
Republican Governor Kevin Stitt said at a press conference that “it is important that the state is implementing our death penalty law with a procedure that is humane and swift for those convicted of the most heinous of crimes.”
Stitt said the trio of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride is reinstated for the lethal injection protocol.
Republican Attorney General Mike Hunter said that 26 of the 47 inmates on death row have exhausted their appeals and are eligible to be scheduled for execution. He said “five years is long enough” for the victims’ families to wait.
“My commitment to Oklahomans who remain tormented by the loss of their loved ones has been that we would go any route necessary to resume executions as expeditiously as possible within the rule of law,” Hunter told reporters. “They have endured enough through the decades of waiting on the lengthy appeals process and the state’s attempts to get the protocol right.”
Oklahoma halted executions in 2015 after the discovery that potassium acetate was incorrectly used to kill Charles Warner, who said “my body is on fire” as he was killed.
Several states have had difficulty carrying out lethal injections as large pharmaceutical manufacturers have stopped producing execution drugs in response to pressure from death penalty opponents. States have since been forced to buy the drugs from smaller compounding pharmacies.
A state grand jury declined to charge officials over the mix-up during Warner’s execution but criticized them for being “careless.”
Stitt said the updated lethal injection execution protocol includes recommendations made by the 11-member Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission in 2017. The bipartisan panel unanimously recommended the continued halt of executions until “significant reforms are accomplished” and recommended the use of nitrogen hypoxia as a secondary execution option.
Stitt said the adopted recommendations include the “verification of execution drugs at every step in the process” and “more training for the execution teams.”
Oklahoma’s lethal injections first drew condemnation during the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014. He was declared unconscious after being injected with midazolam, but breathed heavily, writhed, clenched his teeth and strained to lift his head off a pillow three minutes later. Medical team members told investigators the death chamber was a “bloody mess” due to difficulty tapping a second femoral intravenous line to inject the drugs and that “blood squirted up and got all over” a doctor.
Prison officials then ordered the halt of the execution, but Lockett died of a heart attack 43 minutes later. They later blamed the botched execution on the first intravenous line in Lockett’s groin being placed incorrectly and then covered with a sheet.
Oklahoma officials acknowledged the difficulty in finding reliable sources of executions drugs when they announced in 2018 they would adopt the commission’s recommendation to use a nitrogen gas chamber. The new execution method would result in a condemned inmate dying from hypoxia as the nitrogen gas denies them of oxygen in the death chamber.
The state has not yet carried out an execution in this manner, citing difficulty in purchasing the necessary inhalation equipment due to manufacturers’ reluctance in being associated with the death penalty. Stitt said the use of nitrogen hypoxia remains on the table and that a 2015 state law allows nitrogen chamber execution when drugs for lethal injections are not available.
Attorney Dale Baich, who represents several Oklahoma death row inmates challenging the lethal injection protocol in federal court, blasted the announcement as a failure to add a “commitment to complete transparency and a demonstration of the efforts the state has taken to fix the significant problems” with reinstating executions.
“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,” he said in a statement. “Oklahoma’s history of mistakes and malfeasance reveals a culture of carelessness around executions should give everyone pause.”