Oklahoma: State Sanctioned Torture to Continue

By Neville Elder 01/11/15
Extensive death chamber renovations do not obscure the fact that none of these lethal injection drugs are designed to kill.
Oklahoma death chamber
Oklahoma Photo via

It’s all mod cons at the new execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. There's a brand new bed where inmates are injected with a lethal drug cocktail — it cost $12,000. It replaces a 1950s era gurney with a manual hydraulic system—this new bed has a battery back-up. There are two new microphones in the room, one mounted in the ceiling that will pick up anything the inmate says for witnesses to hear and the other a lavalier microphone, similar to those used in TV interviews, to be clipped to the prisoner so those officials standing behind the brand new two-way mirror in the operations room can hear anything he might say. The speaker system has been replaced and there’s a new carpet and two new cameras for the convenience of the execution team. The two death chamber windows have also been replaced and they’re slightly smaller.

Including medical upgrades, the state of Oklahoma spent $106,000 on applying the recommendations from the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety’s report on the bungled execution of convict Clayton Lockett. Lockett shot teenager Stephanie Neiman after kidnapping her when she disturbed his gang as they were breaking into a home. Neiman’s killer was left squirming and muttering for 40 minutes before he finally succumbed to the lethal dose of the drugs midazolam, vecuronium and potassium chloride. The scene was described vividly in The Washington Post.

Unsurprisingly, the state of Oklahoma doesn’t want anyone to see the executions and the renovations has even included a reduction of the numbers of chairs for witnesses, six less than before. Fewer members of the media will be able to watch the final episode of a prisoner’s life. They will also be unable to monitor the time of the event, as the only clock in the room has been removed.

There probably isn’t a better candidate for the death penalty than Charles Warner, who raped and murdered an 11–month old baby Adrianna Waller in 1997. Despite a moratorium on the death penalty and Warner’s victim’s mother campaigning for him to have his term commuted to life without parole, it looks like Oklahoma will still get to test out its new apparatus. A federal judge ruled in December that the process that eventually killed Lockett last April did not amount to an "illegal experiment on human subjects" and requires no change to procedures.

In Arizona, at the end of July, the execution of double-murderer Joseph Wood lasted two hours. As the inmate lay “gasping and snorting for more than an hour” according to his attorney Dean Baitch, the convict’s defense team scrambled to file a stay of execution to stop the process. And while both sets of lawyers huddled with the attorney general and a federal judge to decide if the execution should continue, the execution team continued to pump 14 further doses of the drugs into the 55-year-old before he finally died. Arizona chose the same drug combo that put Ohio’s Dennis McGuire thorough a similar 30-minute ordeal before his death in January.

Though the Oklahoma judge may disagree, killing people with sedatives and pain relievers is, to put it generously, experimental, but in plain English, guesswork. None of these drugs are designed to kill. Midazolam, one of those used in the 2-drug combo, is the most common form of sedative used during simple medical procedures. The other one, hydromorphone, is an opiate used in hospitals for pain relief. The DOC's lethal injection protocols are an attempt to induce fatal overdose. These protocols have been invented by the Department of Corrections in each state, and just by increasing the dosage, as any first-year med student can tell you, won’t necessarily be any more effective in getting the convict to their grisly end. Double the dose is not double the effect.

This recent rash of botched executions is more than likely due to a drought of the favored drug, Pentobarbital. The Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck ceased production of the very useful anesthetic to stop its use in executions. As stocks have expired wardens in the death row states have attempted to buy it on the black market and commissioned shady compounding pharmacies to cook up the recipe for the special deadly occasions, characterized by the darkly comic event—a Missouri DOC officer loaded his car with a bag full of money and in a midnight dash, slipped across the border to Oklahoma to buy the stash that dosed teen-killer Michael Taylor in March. That execution went smoothly.

But compounding pharmacies are now refusing to make the drug for fear of exposure. After all, it’s not a big money-maker. The quaintly named Apothecary Shoppe in Oklahoma sold Missouri its death drugs for $8,000 a pop. Now many states are attempting to pass secrecy laws so as not to reveal the names of these hometown drug mills. Although a supreme court ruled in Missouri that an inmate is not constitutionally entitled to know the source of the drugs that will kill them the press certainly think they are. Ohio now says they plan to switch back to the single drug method and pass a secrecy law making it illegal to identify the source.

The states’ drug abuse is the final straw says Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“Realistically it’s not working .. (the death penalty is) not going to end because they don’t have the drugs...but it’s just one more problem in a series of embarrassments. Sometimes, they get the wrong person and clearly its not always fair—minorities are dominant on death row. All of these things are coming to a head. We don’t need 25 executions a year in a country that has 14,000 murders – it doesn’t make sense.”  

“I think secrecy is a big mistake. The media is going to go after the sources…that’s going to be the next thing...they’ll be exposed.”

The other forms of execution, such as firing squad, hanging and electrocution were abandoned for a reason. Lots of blood, smoke and fire was too much of a spectacle. A modern American public doesn’t want to be associated with these forms of brutality.

If the death by lethal injection is to continue successfully transparency is the answer. What the defenders of the execution protocol need is a champion. A compounding pharmacy should stand up and say "we’ll make the drug."

“One might imagine in a place like Texas...” Dieter suggests, which executes more inmates than any other state. “Someone would stand up preemptively and say I’m proud!”

But even that has problems. Compounding pharmacies are licensed from state-to-state. Cross-border sales and transportation may then become a federal issue, something the states definitely don’t want. The horrors of the Arizona foul up, brought condemnation from veteran senator and death penalty supporter, John McCain: "The lethal injection needs to be a lethal injection and not the bollocks-upped situation that just prevailed. That's torture." This from a man who was, himself, tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

President Obama himself weighed in on Lockett’s final moments saying: “What happened in Oklahoma is deeply troubling.”

As a circuit court judge in Kentucky decries the death penalty and the bluegrass state announces that it will abandon the same two-drug protocol used in the Ohio and Arizona disasters; other states, too, are putting stays on death row inmates. It’s clear a new coat of paint and some new upholstery can’t cover up the fact that it's the death penalty, itself, that needs an overhaul.

Neville Elder is a regular contributor to The Fix. He's also a photographer and writer. Originally from the UK, he's lived in the unfashionable end of Brooklyn for 13 years. He last wrote about the farce of death penalty drugsrock 'n roll recovery and early morning sober raves.

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British born Neville Elder is a writer,photographer and filmmaker. He's been sober since 2006, lived in New York since 2001 and is in no hurry to move back to a Brexited Britain. He writes the odd murder ballad with his band Thee Shambels and teaches photography at the New York Institute of photography. Find him on Linkedin and Twitter.