Judge Rules Lethal Injection Method in Oklahoma as Constitutional

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A federal judge ruled that Oklahoma’s use of a three-drug lethal injection method does not violate the Constitution after a lawsuit from nearly 30 inmates on death row challenged the protocol.  

The suit, supported by 28 death row prisoners, claimed that the execution method used by Oklahoma violated the Eighth Amendment because it caused “constitutionally impermissible pain and suffering,” the ruling stated. It also named several officials part of Oklahoma corrections agencies. In a decision, US District Court Judge Stephen Friot of the Western District of Oklahoma ruled that the method was constitutional and denied prisoners’ claims.

Battle of the experts

Friot ultimately determined that the prisoners’ attorneys had not presented a strong enough challenge to lethal injection. Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol calls for a combination of drugs to induce death. The drugs used are vecuronium bromide, a paralytic; midazolam, a sedative; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. During the trial, which lasted for a week, Friot said an “expert battle” took place in which experts frequently contradicted one another and argued strongly for their positions.

In a statement of facts, Friot mentioned, “Rarely, in any field of litigation, does a court see and hear well-qualified expert witnesses giving expert testimony as squarely–and emphatically– contradictory, on the issues at the heart of the matter, as this case.”

The case of John Grant

In its decision, the court cited four recent cases in which the state had executed prisoners, including that of John Grant, in October 2021. An eyewitness to the execution said that, following the administration of midazolam, Grant convulsed and vomited. According to Friot, the speed with which the midazolam was administered may have contributed to Grant’s vomiting; the manufacturer recommends slow administration of the drug, and side effects include vomiting and retching. 

Friot also rejected “speculation that Grant was conscious during this episode, whether it was vomiting or passive regurgitation,” citing a doctor’s conclusion during the execution that he was unconscious. Grant was the first inmate to be executed in Oklahoma since the state initiated a moratorium on lethal injections in 2015 following a bungled execution by lethal injection a year earlier. State officials said they would resume carrying out executions once they revised their protocol and obtained the drugs needed for lethal injection.

Attorney General John O’Connor of Oklahoma praised Friot’s decision, saying, “The State has proven that the drugs and method of execution satisfy the United States and Oklahoma constitutions. Midazolam, as the state has repeatedly shown, ‘can be relied upon … to render the inmate insensate to pain.”

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