Updated Oct. 28: In a last-minute decision this afternoon, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 10th Circuit’s execution stay of John Grant and Julius Jones. John Grant is scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m. today. Jones is scheduled to be executed on Nov. 18.

The future of the death penalty in Oklahoma is once again uncertain following a federal appeals court ruling. 

The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday agreed to temporarily stay the executions of death row prisoners John Grant and Julius Jones. The court did not grant or deny execution stays for Wade Lay, Donald Grant and Gilbert Postelle, who have execution dates set for January and February. 

John Grant, who murdered a prison kitchen supervisor in 1998, was scheduled to be put to death on Thursday afternoon. Jones, who was convicted of murdering Edmond businessman Paul Howell in 1999 but has maintained his innocence, had a Nov. 18 execution date. 

In a 2-1 ruling, circuit judges directed state officials to pause Grant and Jones’ executions while they further evaluate the prisoners’ claims. Attorneys for death row prisoners say they had an agreement with former Attorney General Mike Hunter that the state would not seek execution dates while the lawsuit challenging the state’s lethal injection protocol is pending. The prisoners also argue that a judge’s requirement that they select an alternative form of execution in order to challenge the lethal injection mix “demonstrates a hostility towards religion generally.” 

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s office announced Wednesday afternoon it would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s uncertain how long the Supreme Court will take to respond.

Thirty Oklahoma death row prisoners are plaintiffs in the execution protocol lawsuit, which claims that the state’s use of the sedative midazolam in its lethal injection cocktail constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit is scheduled to proceed to trial in February. 

On Aug. 12, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot removed Jones, Grant and four other death row prisoners from the lawsuit because they declined to provide an alternative execution method, citing religious concerns. That ruling prompted Attorney General O’Connor to request execution dates for seven death row prisoners. The state Court of Criminal Appeals honored O’Connor’s request and scheduled the dates on Sept. 20. 

Earlier this month, the Tenth Circuit reversed Friot’s decision and ordered that the dismissed plaintiffs be reinstated. Following the appeals court ruling, attorneys representing the death row prisoners filed a motion last week asking Friot to strike down the execution dates. Friot declined to stay the executions in a ruling Monday, saying that the state’s interest in timely enforcement of its judgments cannot be ignored. 

The death row prisoners’ attorneys filed an appeal with the 10th circuit late Monday afternoon, prompting today’s ruling. 

“The Tenth Circuit did the right thing by blocking Mr. Grant’s execution on Thursday,” federal public defender Dale Baich said in a statement. “Today’s order should prevent the state from carrying out executions until the federal district court addresses the ‘credible expert criticism’ it identified in Oklahoma’s execution procedures.” 

Here’s what else you need to know about Wednesday’s ruling and the future of capital punishment in Oklahoma: 

Why Do State Officials Believe Executions Should Resume? 

The state argues it has tightened up its execution procedures and its three-drug lethal injection cocktail does not cause unconstitutional pain and suffering. 

In court documents, representatives from the attorney general’s office stated that the state has an interest in promptly carrying out its punishments and not retraumatizing family members of crime victims with extensive appeals. State officials have also cited State Question 776, a 2016 ballot initiative where 66% of voters affirmed the state’s right to carry out executions even if certain methods are deemed unconstitutional, as evidence it’s in the public interest to conduct executions. 

Will The Five Other Scheduled Executions Be Stayed?

If the Supreme Court affirms the 10th Circuit’s ruling, it’s likely all executions will be paused until the February lethal injection protocol trial reaches a verdict. 

If the federal court rules Oklahoma’s execution procedures are unconstitutional, the state constitution permits executions by nitrogen gas and firing squad, in that order. However, attempts to implement either method would likely face legal challenges from death row prisoners and their legal counsel. 

Why Have Executions In Oklahoma Been Paused? 

Oklahoma hasn’t executed anyone since Jan. 3, 2015, when Charles Warner was put to death with an unapproved drug. In April 2014, Clayton Lockett was injected with the same unapproved drug mixture and began to convulse, writhe in pain and speak minutes after medical staff declared him unconscious. He suffered a heart attack and died after the execution was called off. 

Former Gov. Mary Fallin agreed to halt all executions in October 2015 until a reliable supply of approved drugs became available. State officials explored nitrogen gas as an alternative method, but ultimately secured a supply of lethal injection drugs and announced that capital punishment would resume early last year. 

In February 2020, state officials announced they had found a reliable supply of lethal injection drugs and were prepared to carry out executions. Executions have been on hold since then while the federal lawsuit proceeds. 

Keaton Ross covers democracy and criminal justice for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss.

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