OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – A federal judge ruled Oklahoma’s execution protocol is legal Monday. The ruling stems from a lawsuit involving more than two dozen inmates that challenged the three drug cocktail the state uses in its lethal injections. Specifically, it challenged the drug midazolam.
Among other claims, the plaintiff inmates argued the three drug cocktail does not prevent extreme pain during execution.
However, the judge ruled in favor of the state and that the drugs cause inmates to go unconscious and unable to feel pain.
“We see this ruling as just one in a lineup of cases where there have been challenges to the way that states execute people,” said Ngozi Ndulue, the deputy director for the death penalty information center in Washington D.C.
Though Oklahoma may not be the only one with legal challenges to its death penalty process, Ndulue said they have kept their eye on the Sooner State.
“What we’re seeing is that Oklahoma has a pretty difficult history with their executions,” she said.
With that federal judge ruling Monday, Oklahoma’s three-drug cocktail was deemed legal with the judge adding “the plaintiff inmates have fallen well short of clearing the bar set by the Supreme Court.”
The claims made during trial earlier this year argued the cocktail did not prevent extreme pain during executions and should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. The plaintiff’s also cited issues in multiple past state executions.
“We’ve seen pretty extreme examples here in Oklahoma,” Ndulue said.
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor reacted to the ruling Monday in a statement:
Attorney General John O’Connor confirmed the receipt of a decision today from a federal district court concluding that Oklahoma’s protocol for the execution of convicted murderers is constitutional. In a case that has spanned nearly a decade, with multiple trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Honorable Stephen P. Friot issued a final judgment in the State’s favor this morning, alongside findings of fact and conclusions of law fully supporting the State’s positions. “The people of Oklahoma and the families who have suffered the murder of a loved one moved one step closer to justice with today’s ruling,” said Attorney General O’Connor.
Oklahoma’s current execution protocol involves administering midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride to convicted murderers on death row. The Court held that the drugs render the inmate unconscious and unable to feel pain. “The State has proven that the drugs and method of execution satisfy the United States and Oklahoma constitutions,” Attorney General O’Connor emphasized. “The Court’s ruling is definitive: The plaintiffs in this case ‘have fallen well short’ of making their case, and midazolam, as the State has repeatedly shown, ‘can be relied upon… to render the inmate insensate to pain.’” Judge Friot’s ruling comes after he held a week-long trial earlier this year, where the testimony of numerous expert and fact witnesses was presented. In his ruling, Judge Friot singled out the testimony of the State’s expert witnesses Joseph Antognini, M.D. and Ervin Yen, M.D. as being the “best-supported and most persuasive” in the case because their respective testimony was “rooted in their extensive professional experience administering midazolam, their observations of its effects on their own patients, and, not least, their credible observations” at the four recent Oklahoma executions. Relying on that testimony, Judge Friot found, among other things, that “500 milligrams of midazolam will easily accomplish general anesthesia,” and that the “recipient of that dose will feel no pain.” “The evidence persuades the court, and not by a small margin, that even though midazolam is not the drug of choice for maintaining prolonged deep anesthesia, it can be relied upon, as used in the Oklahoma execution protocol, to render the inmate insensate to pain for the few minutes required to complete the execution.”
In other words, the Court held that the evidence established “that midazolam does reliably place inmates under general anesthesia” The Court also issued definitive findings on the execution of John Grant, which has been repeatedly mischaracterized in numerous media sources. The Court found that it was “unsurprising” that Grant regurgitated during the execution, given that he had a full stomach at the time, and the Court rejected unfounded “speculation” that Grant was conscious during the execution. Rather, the Court found that it was “highly probable” that Grant felt “no physical pain.” Moreover, the Court found that Grant’s movements during the execution were a “natural result of the administration of 500 milligrams of midazolam.”
This week, the Attorney General plans to seek execution dates for those on death row from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
The ACLU, attorney for the inmates and Archbishop of Oklahoma City also released statements on the situation.
“The death penalty is a flawed, biased, and an arbitrary practice that is not free from error. The ACLU of Oklahoma is extremely disappointed with today’s ruling in favor of our state’s three-drug lethal injection protocol. The world has watched as our state has gone through the process of killing its citizens with catastrophic failure and will no doubt once again witness more botched executions that highlight the incompetence of the process and the state’s deliberate indifference to human suffering. Over the last several years, and especially during the trial, the state has done absolutely nothing to inspire confidence that they are now able to successfully exercise the ultimate power of any government. Instead, they lean on a lack of transparency and the expertise of doctor who is not Board Certified. In light of this ruling, we strongly urge the state to hold their requests for execution dates until all legal remedies have been exhausted before embarking on another killing spree that could include up to 28 people currently eligible under the law. The ACLU of Oklahoma firmly stands against capital punishment and will continue to advocate against this ultimate abuse of government power.”Megan Lambert, ACLU legal director
“The district court’s decision ignores the overwhelming evidence presented at trial that Oklahoma’s execution protocol, both as written and as implemented, creates an unacceptable risk that prisoners will experience severe pain and suffering. We are assessing our options for an appeal.”Jennifer Moreno, attorney for the plaintiffs
“No matter the decision of the court on Oklahoma’s protocol, the use of the death penalty only contributes to the continued coarsening of society and to the spiral of violence. Taking another life does not ultimately bring closure and peace to those who have lost a loved one, and it goes against the principle of valuing life. Justice is necessary, but it is not enough. Mercy perfects justice and brings healing. I urge state leaders to end the death penalty in Oklahoma.”Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections also issued a statement of their own:
“The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is prepared to carry out the orders of the court in accordance with state statute.”
“I think we’re going to continue to see litigation about it because the issues continue,” Ndulue said.