3-drug cocktail focal point of controversy in Oklahoma’s execution of death row inmates

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NOTE: This story has been updated to include a comment from Communications Director for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The controversial drug cocktail used to execute death row inmates in Oklahoma was the focal point of John Grant’s and Julius Jones’ legal teams seeking a stay in their executions, which was granted Wednesday by the the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, but overturned Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Grant
John Grant

Grant was executed at 4:21 p.m. today, Thursday, Oct. 28.

The state executed Grant using a controversial drug cocktail consisting of midazolam, a sedative, vecuronium bromide, a paralytic, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

Witnesses say Grant convulsed about two-dozen times and vomited following the injection of midazolam. He continued breathing until after the second drug was administered. One witness who has been in the room for 14 other executions says he has never seen that happen.

Sean Murphy, an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution, said Grant’s reaction to the lethal drug cocktail brought to mind the controversial execution of Clayton Lockett.

However, Justin Wolf, Communications Director for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, sent a comment to KFOR on Thursday night, saying no issues arose during Grant’s execution.

“Inmate Grant’s execution was carried out in accordance with Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ protocols and without complication,” Wolf said.

Grant was an inmate at the Dick Conner Correctional Center in 1998 when he murdered Gay Carter, a kitchen supervisor at the jail, by stabbing her with a shank 16 times. He was incarcerated at the jail for robbery convictions.

Photo goes with story
Gay Carter

His execution was scheduled for Oct. 28, but his legal team argued to the Court of Appeals that they had an agreement with former Attorney General Mike Hunter that no executions would take place for the time being because of an upcoming trial set for February, which challenges whether Oklahoma’s execution protocol, a three-drug cocktail, is legal.

However, the State of Oklahoma appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the High Court to vacate the stays of execution for Grant and Jones. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the State.

Oklahoma has a troublesome history when it comes to using drug cocktails to carry out death sentences. Executions that caused death row inmates to suffer excruciating pain before dying led to executions being put on hold in 2015.

State officials adopted a plan to use nitrogen gas to execute inmates, but jettisoned that idea and decided to resume executions using the same three-drug lethal injection protocol used during flawed executions in 2014 and 2015. The cocktail consists of midazolam, a sedative, vecuronium bromide, a paralytic, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart, according to the Associated Press.

Grant will be the first man executed in Oklahoma since the moratorium.

A KFOR article from April 29, 2015, says the state began using midazolam in their execution cocktail after pharmaceutical companies refused to provide pentobarbital, the sedatives formerly used to enforce the death penalty.

Concerns about Oklahoma’s execution cocktail arose after the 2014 execution of Lockett, who was sentenced to death for murdering 19-year-old Stephanie Nieman in 1999.

Clayton Lockett

The combination of execution drugs administered to Lockett had never been used before. The procedure went awry as Lockett awoke from his unconscious state and twitched and convulsed on the table.

“The doctor checked the IV and reported the blood vein had collapsed, and the drugs had either absorbed into tissue, leaked out or both,” according to a previously released timeline.

Lockett died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began.

The execution of Charles Warner in 2015 also had complications that caused immense pain.

Charles Warner

The three-drug cocktail was administered to Warner, who raped and murdered 11-month-old Adrianna Walker in 1997.

Warner was heard saying, “It feels like acid,” and “My body is on fire,” during the execution.

An autopsy report said officials used potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride to kill Warner.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on June 29, 2015, that Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Criminal defense attorney Jacqui Ford blasted the State in October 2015, criticizing its execution procedure.

“I think we should be embarrassed,” Ford said. “We look like some backwoods rednecks, and this isn’t the way we should be perceived.”

Ford went on to question the legitimacy of future executions if the state could not obtain the appropriate drugs to use in its death cocktail.

“How can we justify moving forward with any future executions, when we can’t even order the pharmacist to order the right medicine?” Ford said. “If we can’t even do this part right, then we can’t trust the government to do the rest of it right.”

KFOR reached out to Ford on Thursday, seeking her opinion on the state resuming executions, but a member of her staff said she was unavailable for comment.

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