Oklahoma Watch
May 18, 2022
Justice Watch

Lawsuit Challenging Oklahoma’s Lethal Injection Protocol Inches Closer to Resolution

State officials carry out executions at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

By Keaton Ross | Oklahoma Watch

Seven months after Oklahoma ended its nearly seven-year execution moratorium, capital punishment in the state is once again on hold.

The pause, prompted by a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, appears likely to continue for at least the next few months. U.S District Judge Stephen Friot’s ruling in the case will determine whether or not the state can resume executions in the near future.

Attorneys representing more than 30 death row prisoners argue that midazolam, the first of three drugs in Oklahoma’s execution protocol, does not render a person fully unconscious and subjects the condemned to an unconstitutional level of pain and suffering. The state contends that the drug works as intended and will quickly render a prisoner unconscious and insensate to pain.

A trial on the matter began on Feb. 28 and concluded on March 7. Due to the magnitude of evidence presented, attorneys and journalists covering the trial understood that it would take months for Friot to decide on the case. 

Recent court filings signal a verdict could arrive within weeks. 

Last week attorneys representing the state and plaintiffs submitted post-trial briefs, the final component necessary for Friot to settle the matter. The reports offer detailed insight into the testimony of sworn witnesses and evidence presented in court. 

Friot will reference the post-trial briefs, as well as the trial transcript and handwritten notes, and issue a final written ruling. 

As I previously reported, the outcome of the case will have immediate implications for capital punishment in Oklahoma and other states that use midazolam in their lethal injection protocol.

If Friot sides with Oklahoma, state officials could immediately seek execution dates for 27 death row prisoners. The Department of Corrections has stated it has the lethal injection supplies necessary to carry out all pending executions. 

A favorable ruling for the plaintiffs would prompt the state to come up with a new execution protocol. If lethal injection supplies are unavailable or the method has been ruled unconstitutional, Oklahoma’s constitution authorizes nitrogen asphyxia and firing squad as alternative methods. 

Expect the losing side to appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Have thoughts or questions about the death penalty in Oklahoma? Email me at Kross@Oklahomawatch.org or DM me on Twitter.

What I’m Reading This Week:

Oklahoma Voters Could Be Asked to Change State Supreme Court Nominating Process: Senate Joint Resolution 43 proposes abolishing an independent nominating commission and giving the governor more power to appoint Supreme Court justice nominees. The measure, if passed by the legislature, would go to a vote of the people in November. [The Oklahoman]

Police Chief in Calvin, Oklahoma, Arrested After Agents Find Meth in His Home: Joe Chitwood, 42, is suspected of selling small amounts of the drug, officials said. He was booked into the Hughes County Jail last Thursday. [The Oklahoman]

Oklahoman Whose Case Led to McGirt Ruling Gets Life Sentence: Patrick Murphy, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, had his murder conviction in state court overturned after his attorneys argued Oklahoma did not have jurisdiction to prosecute him. A federal judge sentenced him to life in prison on Wednesday. [The Associated Press]

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