Oklahoma Supreme Court Stays 2 Executions After Questions About Lethal Drugs

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Clayton Lockett
Clayton Lockett

Just hours before one death row inmate was scheduled to die — and a week before another was to be executed — the Oklahoma Supreme Court stayed the executions on the grounds that the state hadn’t satisfactorily answered questions about the constitutionality of the state’s secrecy surrounding the drugs it uses for lethal injections.

“We are relieved, and extremely grateful to the Oklahoma supreme court for its reasonable decision to stay the scheduled executions … With today’s stay, the Oklahoma supreme court will be able to fully adjudicate the serious constitutional issues about the extreme secrecy surrounding lethal injection procedures in our state,” Susanna Gattoni and Seth Day, attorneys for the two men, said in a joint statement following the court decision.

Clayton Lockett was scheduled to die at 6 p.m. today, while Charles Warner’s execution date stood at April 29.

In a 5-4 decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that a stay was in order until “final determination of all issues presently pending before this court … along with all issues that may be brought by [the corrections department] … and any legal challenges that may arise as a result of this court’s resolution of those issues are actively litigated.”

The case hinges on whether it is constitutional for Oklahoma to hide the identity of the drugs it uses to put inmates to death.

“The extreme secrecy surrounding lethal injection in Oklahoma makes it impossible to know whether executions would be carried out in a humane and legal manner,” their lawyers said.

The state has said Lockett and Warner will definitely die — it’s just a question of how and when.

While an Oklahoma county district court judge ruled that keeping the source of the drugs confidential is a violation of their rights, the state says keeping the drugs secret allows it to protect suppliers who might be in danger if their identities were made public.

“The Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision to step up to the plate and grant a stay deserves celebration despite the series of events that originally led to this judicial stand-off,” Deborah Denno, death penalty expert at Fordham University, told the Guardian. “May the Supreme Court’s move be a harbinger of other, more responsible, decisions to come.”

Lockett, 38, was convicted of rape and the murder of a 19-year-old woman in 1999, while Warner, 46, was convicted of raping and killing an 11-month-old baby in 1997.

“As uncomfortable as this matter makes us, we refuse to violate our oaths of office and to leave the appellants with no access to the courts, their constitutionally guaranteed measure,” the state Supreme Court wrote.

But Justice Steven Taylor said in a dissenting opinion that the appellants “have maneuvered this court right where they set out to put us, and that is, for the first time in this court’s relevant history, in the middle of a death penalty appeal. We have never been here before and we have no jurisdiction now.”

The case has implications outside of Oklahoma, as a Missouri death row inmate today sought to halt his execution over similar concerns about the state’s secret lethal injection drugs. The Missouri man, William Rousan, 57, is scheduled for execution at 12:01 a.m. Central Time on Wednesday. He was convicted in 1993 of murdering 62-year-old Grace Lewis and her 67-year-old husband, Charles Lewis, in a plot to steal the farm couple’s cattle.

After the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday rejected Rousan’s appeal, the case is next headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The identity of lethal injection drugs has become an issue for lawyers to use in several other states as the states try to find a drug they can use. As the makers of the drugs typically used for injections have stopped making them available for that purpose, states have tried lightly regulated compounding pharmacies for supplies. That has led the lawyers to argue that drugs obtained from compounding pharmacies could lead to undue suffering, which would amount to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

They also maintain they should be able to get information about the legitimacy of the supplier and details about the purity and potency of the drugs.

Louisiana and Ohio this year have seen executions delayed because of concerns about the untraditional drug supplies. After an inmate was executed in Ohio in January and, according to witnesses, took an unusually long time to die and appeared to be in pain, the inmate’s family filed a lawsuit against the state.

 

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