New Reports Reveal Irregularities in Oklahoma Execution Process

Two recent media reports reveal additional details of irregularities in Oklahoma’s administration and defense of its lethal injection procedures. A story in The Atlantic describes in detail the botched execution of Clayton Lockett and the failed attempts made by a paramedic and a doctor to insert the IV into Lockett’s veins. A Buzzfeed report asserts that Oklahoma’s brief to the Supreme Court in the lethal injection case, Glossip v. Gross, made misrepresentations about the state’s efforts to obtain lethal injection drugs. The Atlantic reports that, after failing to insert the IV in Lockett’s arm, the paramedic sought help from the doctor, Johnny Zellmer, and describes their unsuccessful attempts to insert the needle in Lockett’s neck and chest before deciding to place the IV in the femoral vein near his groin. However, the longest needle available in the execution chamber was less than half the length necessary to reach the femoral vein. “We’ll just have to make it work,” the doctor reportedly said. After the drugs were administered and Lockett began to struggle and writhe on the gurney, the doctor checked the IV and found that it was displaced. When Zellmer pushed the needle back into Lockett’s vein, blood squirted all over him, soaking his jacket. “You’ve hit the artery,” the paramedic said. “It’ll be all right,” Zellmer told her. “We’ll go ahead and get the drugs.” Ten minutes later, before additional drugs could be administered, Lockett was delcared dead. Buzzfeed reported that Oklahoma had misinformed the Supreme Court that its supplier of compounded pentobarbital had come “under intense pressure from death penalty opponents” to cease making the lethal injection drug “and subsequently declined to continue supplying the drug to Oklahoma.” It supplied a redacted copy of letter in support of that claim. The pharmacy, however, told Buzzfeed that it had never supplied any drugs to Oklahoma for any execution, and an unredacted copy of the letter showed that it had actually been sent to Texas, not Oklahoma, prison officials.

The misattribution, which the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office called “an inadvertant citation error,” undermined Oklahoma’s argument that it had turned to midazolam only because its “exhaustive” efforts to obtain other drugs had proved fruitless. The Atlantic article also describes Oklahoma’s decision-making process behind the selection of midazolam as the first drug in its execution protocol. According to the article, the general counsel of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections — who was not a medical professional — was responsible for choosing the drug and selected it on the advice of his counterpart at the Ohio Department of Corrections, which had used midazolam in the botched execution of Dennis McGuire.

(J. Stern, “Cruel and Unusual,” The Atlantic, June 2015; C. McDaniel, “Oklahoma’s Attorney General Misled Supreme Court About Letter On Execution Drug Availability,” Buzzfeed News, May 12, 2015; C. McDaniel, “Oklahoma Attorney General Admits ‘Error’ In Brief To Supreme Court, But Says It Has No Bearing On Case,” Buzzfeed News, May 13, 2015.) See Lethal Injection.