Death penalty controversy rages, investigations of Oklahoma’s process proceed

OKLAHOMA CITY – Gov. Mary Fallin and state Attorney General Scott Pruitt announced this week a wrong drug was part of the “lethal cocktail” used to execute Charles Warner earlier this year. Coming after weeks of controversy over the near-execution of Richard Glossip, the news provoked dismay throughout state government and among activists passionately opposed to the ultimate sanction.

In a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations, Fallin said, “”Last Wednesday [September 30], in the early afternoon on the day of Richard Glossip’s scheduled execution, the Department of Corrections (DOC) consulted with the attorney general’s office and then called my office to say they had received a drug called potassium acetate instead of the drug potassium chloride.

“This was the first time that myself or anyone in my office had been notified of potassium acetate. According to the DOC staff, the doctor working with the agency as well as the pharmacist assured the DOC that the two drugs are medically interchangeable. The active ingredient is potassium which, when injected in large quantities, stops the heart.

“As an act of precaution, the attorney general and I decided to stop the execution. During the discussion of the delay of the execution it became apparent that DOC may have used potassium acetate in the execution of Charles Warner in January of this year. I was not aware nor was anyone in my office aware of that possibility until the day of Richard Glossip’s scheduled execution.

“The attorney general’s office is conducting an inquiry into the Warner execution and I am fully supportive of that inquiry. It is imperative that the attorney general obtain the information he needs to make sure justice is served competently and fairly.

“Moving forward, the attorney general, the Department of Corrections and my office will work cooperatively to address these issues. Until we have complete confidence in the system, we will delay any further executions.”

Attorney General Pruitt said in his statement, “While it is the policy of my office not to comment on pending investigations, as I stated last Thursday in a pleading to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, we are evaluating ‘the events that transpired on September 30, 2015, ODOC’s acquisition of a drug contrary to protocol, and ODOC’s internal procedures relative to the protocol. The State has a strong interest in ensuring that the execution protocol is strictly followed.’

“I want to assure the public that our investigation will be full, fair and complete and includes not only actions on September 30, but any and all actions prior, relevant to the use of potassium acetate and potassium chloride.”

Former state Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, called the news concerning Warner “shocking and disturbing,” but said the recent turmoil is “essential” to the goals of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP). Johnson is now chairman of the group, which is opposed to executions across-the-board.

Johnson continued, saying the “revelation reinforces our efforts and renews our determination to continue to educate Oklahomans about the many things that are wrong with the death penalty. We look forward to continuing to add our voices to the dialog and the reporting around this latest revelation, with a goal of educating Oklahomans about the death penalty’s cost, potential for getting it wrong, and its arbitrariness and unfairness. This is awareness raising at a level that we’ve only ever hoped for.”

Rev. Adam Leathers described members of the coalition, for which he is spokesperson, as “deeply troubled at the recent revelation that the wrong drug was used to kill Charles Warner. We understand that the execution process is complicated and we do not fault the Oklahoma Department of Corrections: they are simply doing their jobs.

“The fault lies with our state’s leadership who insist on wasting vast amounts of our resources trying to do the wrong thing the right way. Nothing as evil, expensive, and so horrendously flawed as the Death Penalty should be allowed to exist.”

Also commenting was a board member of the group. Rex Friend reflected,

“We want a very thorough investigation as to who was involved in breaking the protocol in January in the execution of Charles Warner. On September 30, our understanding of the breaking of the protocol didn’t happen because of the high profile attention focused on the Richard Glossip execution, but rather was prevented by the high profile nature of the media attention on Glossip’s possible innocence.”

Thursday (October 8), Gov. Fallin said the series of events have put the future of the death penalty in Oklahoma in doubt.

Rick Green, capitol reporter for The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper, said Fallin told reporters the news “certainly is not helpful to us having the death penalty in Oklahoma.”

Green summarized the sequence of events this way: “An improperly set intravenous line slowed the death of one man, the wrong drug was given to another and a third execution was called off at the last minute because of the same drug mistake.”

“Sure I’m frustrated, absolutely,” Fallin told the press corps.

The state’s chief executive hired former U.S. Attorney Robert McCampbell as a personal legal counsel this week, saying she “wanted independent, outside advice, not from entities involved in the process itself .”

From Massachusetts, Harvard Law Profess Charles Ogletree commented, “The difference between murder and a state-sanctioned execution is that executions proceed under the color of law. Based on media reports, it appears Oklahoma did not follow its own laws when it executed Charles Warner.

“U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch should initiate a Department of Justice investigation into why Oklahoma used the wrong drug, and whether any civil or even criminal liability should attach to the homicide of Charles Warner.”

Ogletree is the Jesse Climenko Professor at the university, and Founding and Executive Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.