Dave Ruthenberg

This past week, Oklahoma state officials announced they still have not been able to draft a new execution protocol and there is no plan to date to resume executions. Based on the bungling that has occurred in Oklahoma, the date executions are to resume should be easily decided: there should be none.

After putting a hold on executions in 2015 following a series of botched or attempted executions involving the use of lethal injections, the state Legislature passed a law that would allow executions to be carried out using nitrogen hypoxia. Oklahoma would thus become the first state to use this inert gas to execute inmates.

According to CNHI’s Oklahoma state reporter, Janelle Stecklein, Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh had announced in March (2018) they hoped to have the new gas protocols drafted within 120 days. The fact that has not transpired should actually be seen as good news as Oklahoma has been a death chamber of horrors.

Oklahoma made global news in 2014 with the botched execution of Clayton Lockett when his execution was halted 33 minutes into the procedure. It was later learned the intravenous line had failed. Witnesses said Lockett writhed and thrashed in apparent pain. Officials then announced Lockett had died of a heart attack, but a later autopsy revealed he died due to the drugs that were administered.

The state put a hold on executions while it reviewed its process and implementation of drugs, which had become increasingly difficult to obtain due to pharmaceutical companies not wishing to be part of the execution process. The state turned to a compounding pharmacy.

Oklahoma’s next execution occurred in January 2015, when Charles Warner was executed using a three-drug regimen of what was supposed to have consisted of midazolam, to produce sedation, rocuronium bromide, to stop breathing, and potassium chloride, to stop the heart. Warner stated it “feels like acid” and “it burns.”

It was later learned potassium acetate had been used on Warner, not potassium chloride. When the next scheduled execution date arrived, the state learned it had again received a shipment of potassium acetate and not potassium chloride and canceled the planned execution of Richard Glossip just two hours before Glossip was scheduled to die.

Incredibly, it was revealed in a grand jury report, when Steve Mullins, then the top lawyer for Gov. Mary Fallin, learned the wrong drug had been delivered, he instructed the deputy attorney general to “Google it” to determine if it was the same as potassium chloride. It’s not. The grand jury report stated Mullins wished to proceed with the execution. It seems unimaginable a Google search minutes before a scheduled execution could have been the determining factor in life or death for Glossip.

We can only hope Allbaugh is doing more than just a Google search on nitrogen hypoxia — but don’t assume anything.

It’s not just the recent history of botched executions and flippant attitudes that exposes Oklahoma’s deeply flawed system of justice.

As Mark Fuhrman noted in his 2003 book, “Death and Justice: An Expose of Oklahoma’s Death Row Machine,” the Sooner State’s long-held “hang ‘em high’ attitude of cowboy justice” resulted in more executions per capita than any other state, including Texas. Fuhrman was a firm believer in the death penalty until he came across his Oklahoma research.

The legitimacy of many of those convictions was torn asunder when the extent of Oklahoma County police chemist Joyce Gilchrist’s misconduct, including misrepresentation and destruction of evidence, was discovered. Gilchrist was the DNA lynchpin in several of Oklahoma District Attorney “Cowboy Bob” Macy’s successful prosecutions. Macy sent 54 people to death row during his 21 years in office.

According to the Innocence Project, as noted by syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, at least 11 wrongful convictions have been attributed to Gilchrist and Macy, including two former death row inmates.

While many would believe this sad chapter is behind Oklahoma, allegations of irregularities within the Oklahoma City Police Department crime lab have again emerged as now-retired forensic specialist Elaine Taylor’s work has come under heavy fire by several world-renowned forensic scientists who have criticized her work in the 2015 rape conviction of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw.

Meting out justice is not a light matter, especially when it comes to the death penalty. While the crimes of a condemned prisoner may be gruesome, that does not excuse the state from conducting itself in a thorough, responsible manner and carrying out the sentence in a humane fashion.

There can be no room for error or misconduct.

Should we really expect Oklahoma to get it right this time? Maybe we should Google it.

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Ruthenberg is a multiple award-winning columnist and writer for the Enid News & Eagle. Contact him at daver@enidnews.com.

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