I’m thrilled to announce that Oklahoma Watch is launching a new weekly newsletter, Justice Watch! It will arrive in your inbox most weeks on Wednesday.
A quick introduction: I’ve been with Oklahoma Watch since June 2020, covering criminal justice with an emphasis on prison conditions and reform efforts in the legislature. My goal is that this newsletter is an extension of that work, highlighting important trends in news in the world of Oklahoma criminal justice that are worth knowing about.
What would you value in a justice-focused newsletter? Updates on criminal justice bills moving through the legislature? Insight into national criminal justice research and trends that affect Oklahoma? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also invite you to take a criminal justice survey I created to help improve our coverage.
Next week’s big criminal justice story centers around a federal lawsuit challenging Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol as unconstitutional. The death row prisoners’ lawsuit has proceeded to a trial, with arguments set to begin Monday. No cell phones or electronic devices are allowed inside the federal courthouse, but I’ll share updates on Twitter as soon as I am able.
The prisoners argue that the sedative midazolam, the first drug the state uses in its execution protocol, does not fully render a person unconscious and causes excess fluid to build in the lungs, creating a sensation of suffocation or drowning. The state contends that midazolam almost instantly renders the prisoner unconscious and unable to feel pain. For more context, check out this report on the possible implications of the trial I wrote a few weeks ago.
Both the state and prisoners’ attorneys have filed trial briefs that include a list of expert witnesses. Here’s an overview of who the experts are and what their arguments will be.
The Prisoner’s Witnesses
- Dr. Mark Edgar, a Florida-based pathologist: Edgar will testify that the state’s 500 mg dose of midazolam will immediately destroy tissue in the prisoners’ lungs and cause them to fill with fluid. If the prisoner remains conscious, they will feel extreme pain similar to drowning or suffocation, Edgar argues. The plaintiffs plan to call five other expert witnesses to present similar testimony.
- Dr. Craig Stevens, professor of pharmacology at Oklahoma State University: Stevens will testify that midazolam has a “ceiling effect” and won’t render a prisoner immune from pain no matter how much of the drug is administered.
- Dr. Reginald Wilkinson, former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and past chair of the National Institute of Corrections Advisory Board: Wilkinson will testify that the training of execution team members is inadequate and leaves prisoners vulnerable to unconstitutional pain.
- Dr. David Sherman, professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Michigan: Sherman will testify that the state could use a combination of pentobarbital and sodium pentothal in executions instead of midazolam.
- Dr. James Williams, a Texas-based emergency physician and firearms expert: Williams will testify that execution by firing squad causes a quick and pain-free death if certain arteries are targeted.
The State’s Witnesses
- Dr. Joseph Antognini, a California-based anesthesiologist: Antognini will testify that midazolam is safe to use in painful medical procedures and can effectively render a person unconscious for more than an hour.
- Dr. Ervin Yen, an Oklahoma City anesthesiologist and former Republican State Senator: Yen will testify that the state’s 500 mg dose of midazolam will cause a person to become unconscious and unable to feel pain within 30 to 45 seconds. The State of Oklahoma is paying Yen to travel to McAlester and attend executions as a paid witness, but officials have declined to release details of his contract, saying that matters relating to pending litigation are exempt from the Open Records Act.
- Dr. Daniel E. Buffington, a Florida-based clinical pharmacist: Like Antognini, Buffington will testify that midazolam reduces anxiety and effectively renders a patient unconscious.
- Justin Farris, Chief of Operations for the Oklahoma Department of Correction: Farris will testify that the agency has been unable to find a willing supplier of pentobarbital, a sedative the state previously used in its execution protocol that some prisoners argue would be a better option than midazolam. He will also defend the agency’s training protocol for staff members who carry out executions.
- Scott Crow, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections: Crow will testify “about how DOC’s current execution protocol is an improvement over its past protocol” and that the state has a sufficient supply of drugs to carry out all pending executions.
What I’m Reading This Week
- ‘A Humiliating Experience’: Prisoners Allege Abuse at Discipline-Focused ‘Shock’ Camps: Shock incarceration took hold four decades ago as a way to “shock” people into a sober, law-abiding life, but research does not support the idea that shock programs work better than regular prison, The Marshall Project’s Keri Blakinger reports. [The Marshall Project]
- Texas Law Firm Agrees to Review Oklahoma Death Penalty Case: A group of Republican House members, led by Rep. Kevin McDugle, have serious doubts about death row prisoner Richard Glossip’s guilt and have sought an outside law firm to review the case. The ReedSmith Law Firm, based in Houston, hopes to conclude its investigation in April. [Associated Press]
- OSBI Seeks More Agents For ‘Overwhelming’ Online Child Predator Problem: The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is asking for $3 million from the Legislature this session to hire 25 new staff members and clear a backlog of tips about potential child predators. [NonDoc]
- A Bill Seeks to Expand Oklahoma’s Definition of Domestic Violence, But Would it Help Victims? State law requires a person to be threatened or physically abused before they can be considered a victim or seek a protective order in court, The Frontier’s Reese Gorman reports. A bill with bipartisan support in the Oklahoma Legislature would expand the state’s definition of domestic violence to include forms of psychological abuse. [The Frontier]
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.