After several years of writing articles about Oklahoma officials botching the execution of inmates sentenced to death by our courts, here we are again in 2021, writing about another one. According to a statement from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the execution of John Marion Grant, who killed a prison cafeteria worker while already serving a 130-yearsentence, proceeded without incident. The department plans to proceed with executions of other death row inmates in the coming months.
The "business-as-usual" statement from the department of corrections may have passed without notice had it not conflicted so dramatically with the eyewitness account of Sean Murphy, a journalist with the Associated Press, who described a scene of Grant convulsing and vomiting while strapped to a gurney. At the same time, members of the execution team rushed into the execution chamber to wipe away the vomit on his face and neck.
Oklahoma's history of lethal injection failures
Administering a lethal cocktail of drugs to carry out the death penalty in Oklahoma has been marked by a series of failures starting in2014 with the execution of Clayton D. Lockett. Although he was supposedly sedated, Lockett regained consciousness, moaned, and appeared in pain and agony during the 43 minutes it took for drugs to eventually kill him.
Things did not go much better in 2015 when corrections officials administered the wrong drug during the execution of Charles Warner. After being injected with a drug that should have stopped his heart from beating, Warner cried out in pain during an execution that took 18 minutes to complete because prison officials injected him with the wrong drug.
2020 report raised questions about a drug used by Oklahoma
Other capital punishment states that use lethal injection have also had problems. According to an NPR report, medical experts reviewed the autopsies of 32 inmates whose execution protocols included the use of the drug midazolam. The experts noted the presence of pulmonary edema in 87% of the autopsies, which meant the inmates would have experienced a sensation akin to drowning and suffocating as their lungs filled with fluid. The feeling was described as being similar to a person undergoing torture by waterboarding would experience.
A federal magistrate ruling on a challenge to the use of lethal injection in Ohio found that midazolam did not prevent an inmate from feeling pain caused by the other drugs used in the execution process. The court concluded that the drug did not prevent pain and contributed to an inmate's distress by causing pulmonary edema.
Federal court challenge to use of lethal drugs in Oklahoma
Appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have yet to declare either lethal injection in general or the use of any specific drug or drug combination as unconstitutional. There is, however, a trial date scheduled in early 2022 in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Oklahoma death row inmates challenging the use of drugs in the execution process as inflicting pain and suffering in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
At a news conference the day after the most recent execution, the director acknowledged that the sight of the convulsing and vomiting inmate was "not pleasant to watch.” Still, he went on to say that he did not believe it was inhumane. At least for the moment, it appears to be business as usual as far as executions in Oklahoma, and that's a shame.