By Nolan Clay
Oklahoma officials pledged Feb . 13 to resume executions — by lethal injection — to get justice for the families of murder victims and they said checks and balances will be in place to prevent the mistakes of the past.
“I believe capital punishment is appropriate for the most heinous of crimes,” Gov. Kevin Stitt said at a news conference. “And it is our duty as state officials to obey the laws of the state of Oklahoma by carrying out this somber task.”
Executions have been on hold in Oklahoma since 2015 because of drug mix-ups that brought national ridicule to the state. One woman and 46 men are awaiting execution for murder, according to the Oklahoma Corrections Department. Most — 26 — have exhausted their appeals and are eligible to have execution dates set.
The announcement came as a surprise because officials have been working on a way to carry out the death penalty with nitrogen gas. Officials said two years ago the switch was necessary because of the problems associated with the lethal injection method. The Corrections Department director at the time complained that it was increasingly difficult to even get the necessary drugs.
Officials said a reliable supply of the drugs — midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride — now has been found to carry out multiple executions. They also said more safeguards and training requirements have been added to the execution protocol and that the family members of murder victims have had to wait too long.
Attorney General Mike Hunter pointed out the U.S. Supreme Court already has rejected legal challenges to those drugs. He said the new safeguards include a process to verify the drugs at every step.
Under an agreement made in 2015 with attorneys for death row inmates, the state will not ask the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to set any execution dates for 150 days.
One of the attorneys, Dale Baich, said official “provided no assurances that the state is prepared to carry out executions in a manner that comports with the Constitution.”
The new Corrections Department director, Scott Crow, thanked families of victims for their patience “as we worked through this process to make sure that we could do executions in Oklahoma meticulously.”
The death penalty still has widespread support in Oklahoma despite the ridicule that followed an injection mistake in 2014 and drug mix-ups in 2015.
The last scheduled execution, on Sept. 30, 2015, was called off after a doctor discovered the wrong deadly drug — potassium acetate — had been supplied. Officials acknowledged afterward that the same mistake had been made in the execution carried out in January 2015.
A state grand jury that investigated the drug mix-ups blamed a faulty protocol, inexcusable failures by corrections officials and a pharmacist’s negligence.
Grand jurors recommended a series of changes, most notably that the state consider nitrogen gas as the execution method of the future.
Oklahoma has had a law on the books since 2015 that allows nitrogen gas for capital punishment but only if lethal injections drugs are unavailable. The method has never been used in the United States for executions.
The attorney general said the state will continue to finalize a procedure to use nitrogen gas in case lethal injection drugs cannot be found in the future. “Good progress has been made … but we’re not there yet,” he said.
A bill to abolish the death penalty in Oklahoma is now before the House Judiciary Committee.