Oklahoma may continue to use its three-drug lethal injection protocol to carry out executions, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot ruled on Monday.
In a 45-page ruling, Friot ruled plaintiffs fell “well short” of proving Oklahoma’s protocol causes an unconstitutional level of pain and suffering. He also dismissed the plaintiff’s claims that execution by firing squad or lethal injection with pentobarbital would be a less painful alternative.
“The Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death–something that, of course, isn’t guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes,” Friot wrote, referencing Bucklew v. Precythe, a Supreme Court case decided in 2018.
Friot praised the trial testimony of Dr. Ervin Yen, an Oklahoma City anesthesiologist and former state senator who attended four executions as a paid witness for the state. Yen said during the March trial that a high dose of the sedative midazolam, the first drug administered in Oklahoma’s execution protocol, will render a prisoner unconscious and unable to feel pain within a minute.
How it Started
Federal public defenders representing more than 20 Oklahoma death row prisoners filed the lawsuit in June 2014, weeks after the bungled execution of Clayton Lockett. They allege the sedative midazolam, the first drug administered in Oklahoma’s execution protocol, does not adequately render a prisoner unconscious and leaves them vulnerable to pain and suffering.
The state called three expert witnesses who testified that the drug effectively renders a person insensate to pain. Two senior Department of Corrections officials, director Scott Crow and chief of operations Justin Farris, told Friot that safeguards have been implemented in recent years to reduce the likelihood of execution mishaps.
Eighteen prisoners listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit have exhausted all appeals and are eligible to receive an execution date. The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office is authorized to request execution dates from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
What They’re Saying
In a statement, Attorney General John O’Connor said his office is reviewing the court’s order and will soon decide when to seek execution dates.
“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 Federal District Court ruling,” O’Connor said. “The State has proven that the drugs and method of execution satisfy the United States and Oklahoma constitutions.”
Corrections department spokesman Josh Ward said the agency is “prepared to carry out the orders of the court in accordance with state statute.” Per state law, lethal injection drug records are exempt from open records laws.
The prisoners’ attorneys are exploring options to appeal Friot’s ruling in federal court. A successful appeal appears unlikely, however, as the Supreme Court has grown increasingly hostile to prisoners challenging their execution method or proclaiming their innocence in recent months.
“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,” said Jennifer Moreno, a federal public defender representing Oklahoma prisoners.
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss