The execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

Oklahoma has executed four men over the past seven months. 

They all had excess fluid in their lungs when they died, autopsy reports from the Oklahoma Chief Medical Examiner’s office show. 

Dr. Ross Miller noted minimal pulmonary edema in the autopsy report of Gilbert Postelle, who the state executed on Feb. 17. Postelle’s lungs had a combined weight of 1,220 milligrams; the adult average is between 900 and 1,000 milligrams. 

Previous media reports noted that John Grant, Bigler Stouffer and Donald Grant suffered from the condition at the time of their death. Oklahoma Watch obtained Postelle’s autopsy report through an open records request. 

Pulmonary edema, which is typically caused by heart failure, is a condition where fluid accumulates in the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. Symptoms range from mild to severe and life-threatening. 

Attorneys representing Oklahoma death row prisoners claim that pulmonary edema develops minutes after the sedative midazolam, the first of three drugs in the state’s lethal injection protocol, is administered. They argue that the prisoner is likely to remain conscious and experience severe pain as fluid builds in the lungs. 

Dr. Mark Edgar, an anatomical pathologist at Emory University, testified during a March trial over the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol. He told the court that there’s at least an 85% chance of pulmonary edema in executions where the midazolam is administered.

“The pulmonary edema in most cases Dr. Edgar reviewed was ‘severe,’ so he would expect those prisoners felt ‘a sense of impending doom of asphyxiation, of drowning, of terror, all of those things,’” the prisoners’ attorneys wrote in a post-trial report filed earlier this month. 

Attorneys for the state contend that midazolam adequately renders a prisoner insensate to pain. They also note that pulmonary edema does not always produce acute symptoms and is a common finding in drug overdose autopsies. 

“Even if inmates were conscious of the pulmonary edema later found in their autopsies, the evidence is still insufficient to show they were sure or very likely in severe pain,” the state attorneys wrote in their post-trial brief

As I noted in last week’s newsletter, a verdict from U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot could come at any time. His decision will have immediate implications for capital punishment in Oklahoma. 

Have criminal justice-related thoughts, questions or story ideas? Email me at or send me a DM on Twitter.

What I’m Reading This Week:

As Drug Court Participation Falls in Oklahoma, Counties Struggle to Provide Alternatives: Participation in felony drug courts statewide has fallen by more than 40% since simple drug possession and some low-level property crimes became misdemeanors in Oklahoma. Program administrators say many counties are now struggling to serve people with misdemeanor charges who may be less motivated to participate in highly structured, sometimes expensive and time-consuming drug court programs without the threat of a felony conviction and prison. [The Frontier]

Supreme Court Limits Inmates’ Challenges Based on Bad Legal Help: In a 6-3 ruling on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court cut back on prisoners’ ability to challenge their conviction in federal court by arguing their attorney had been ineffective in state court proceedings. [New York Times]

Effort to Grant Oklahoma Governor More Power over State Supreme Court Nominations Ends: Oklahoma voters won’t be asked to change the state Supreme Court nominating process this year as the leader of the state Senate said his proposal was unable to get enough support in the House as the legislative session comes to an end. [The Oklahoman]

Former Oklahoma County Detention Officer Charged After Investigation Into Inmate’s Death: Jesse Paul Knight was charged with destruction or falsification of records and willful neglect of duty in connection with the death of Gabriel Yalartai. Detention officers found Yalartai hanging from an air vent in his cell on Dec. 27, 2021. [KOCO]

Help Us Make a Difference

From the impact of COVID-19 behind bars to the effects of prison gerrymandering, my reporting focuses on how Oklahoma’s criminal justice system impacts people inside and outside of the system. It can take weeks or months for me to file public records requests, dig into documents and track down sources. As a nonprofit news organization, we rely on your financial support to do this time-consuming but important work. Help us make a difference.

Support our publication

Every day we strive to produce journalism that matters — stories that strengthen accountability and transparency, provide value and resonate with readers like you.

This work is essential to a better-informed community and a healthy democracy. But it isn’t possible without your support.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.