Federal judge opens hearing on Oklahoma’s lethal injection
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma’s push to resume executions, which includes four death row prisoners put to death since October, faced the scrutiny of a federal judge in Oklahoma City on Monday in a case brought by more than two dozen death row inmates who are challenging Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocols.
Attorneys for the inmates argue that the use of the sedative midazolam as the first of the state’s three-drug method creates a risk of unconstitutional pain and suffering. They maintain the drug does not produce a deep enough level of unconsciousness, and that an inmate would be paralyzed by the second drug, vecuronium bromide, and unable to speak or move when the third drug, potassium chloride, is administered. Experts agree an injection of potassium chloride would be extremely painful if the prisoner was not properly anesthetized.
But attorneys for the state maintain that numerous courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have maintained that the use of midazolam as the first in a three-drug protocol is likely to render an inmate insensate to pain.
The 28 death row plaintiffs have exhausted all their appeals, and the state is expected to request execution dates for all of them if the judge finds the current protocol is constitutional. Several other states have used midazolam in their lethal injection protocols.
On Monday, the plaintiffs called Dr. Craig Stephens, an Oklahoma State University professor of pharmacology, who testified that midazolam is not an appropriate drug to render a person insensate to pain.
“It’s not a drug that can keep you under,” Stephens said.
Stephens also described the feeling of an intravenous injection of potassium chloride, which stops an inmate’s heart, as “a burning fire, veins on fire, very painful.”
Stephens said the addition of an opioid like fentanyl would be more likely to render an inmate unable to feel pain. He also recommended removing the paralytic from the protocol since it would prevent an inmate who is feeling pain from being able to express it.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot also heard from David Sherman, a medical chemist at the University of Michigan, who testified that other more effective lethal chemicals like pentobarbital and sodium thiopental would be easy and cheap to produce and could be made at any of several public or private labs in the state.
“It’s easy to construct and can be done on a large scale,” Sherman said. “This could be done by undergraduate students with experience in organic chemistry.”
Oklahoma used pentobarbital and sodium thiopental in earlier executions, but have not been able to obtain the drugs because their manufacturers have prohibited their use in executions.
The trial is expected to continue for the rest of the week.