OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma officials announced Thursday a plan to resume executions using lethal injection, more than five years after implementing a moratorium.
Attorney General Mike Hunter said no execution dates could be set for at least 150 days because of an existing court order. He was hesitant to predict when executions would resume.
But, he said the state already has obtained the three drugs — midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride — necessary to conduct the executions. Hunter said the state is sticking with the combination because of its past success. Any issues have always been connected to human error, he said.
“My continued commitment when I speak to Oklahomans who remain tormented by the loss of their loved ones has been that we would use any route necessary and constitutionally valid to resume executions as expeditiously as possible,” Hunter said.
Executions were halted more than five years ago following several mishaps. A bungled procedure in 2014 left an inmate writhing on the gurney. In 2015, an execution reportedly was carried out with the wrong drug, and a second halted after a similar issue was discovered.
Scott Crow, director of the Department of Corrections, said Thursday he’s “very confident” officials have established a system of checks and balances and safeguards in its revised execution protocol will eliminate further mistakes in the state’s death chamber.
He said safeguards include ensuring the individuals involved in carrying out the execution are trained, verifying the drugs at every step and ensuring every piece is carried out meticulously.
Hunter said he was certain the state would face legal challenges, but he is confident any challenges will clear the judicial process easily.
In all, 26 inmates now have exhausted all appeals and are waiting for an execution date.
Hunter and Crow did not expressly rule out the possibility of holding double executions.
“Because of the number that we have, we’re looking at the overall complexity of that situation, and we’re developing a schedule for Gov. (Kevin) Stitt and Attorney General Hunter to establish a more definitive game plan going forward,” Crow said.
The plan to return to the “troubled” three-drug midazolam protocol should be accompanied by a commitment to transparency and a demonstration of the efforts Oklahoma has taken to fix the significant problems plaguing recent executions, said Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender, who is representing Oklahoma death row prisoners in a federal lethal injection lawsuit.
“But it was not,” Baich said in a statement. “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. Oklahoma’s history of mistakes and malfeasance reveals a culture of carelessness around executions should give everyone pause.”
In a statement, the Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, said it’s time to stop spending taxpayer money to kill human beings.
“We deserve justice for these heinous crimes, but we don't end the cycle of violence by committing more violence,” the Roman Catholic leader said. “In all of these cases, we lost a life, and the death penalty only serves to further devalue human dignity. We have the capability now to punish criminals and protect society without killing in return. I call on our legislators and Gov. Stitt to make a change for Oklahoma and choose non-lethal ways to ensure justice.”
Stitt, though, said those sentenced to death have committed unspeakable acts and will be held accountable.
“It has been over five years since the state’s last execution,” he said. “I can’t imagine the grief and loss of the families and friends that are still mourning the murder of their loved ones. I believe capital punishment is appropriate for the most heinous of crimes, and it is our duty as state officials to obey the laws of the state of Oklahoma by carrying out this somber task.”
Oklahoma officials also continue finalizing an alternative nitrogen hypoxia execution protocol for use in the event that lethal injection drugs ever become unavailable, Hunter said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.