|Oklahoma Death Chamber|
Scathing report on botched execution underscores a ‘failed’ system rife with ‘negligence’ and raises the question of whether the state can be trusted
On 10 October 2014, the state of Oklahoma threw open the doors of its maximum-security McAlester prison to reporters – the Guardian among them – to show off its brand-new, state-of-the-art death chamber. The corrections department had invested $106,000 to create the perfect killing machine that deployed the latest advances in technology and science – ultra sound, heart and blood pressure monitors, digital intercom and cameras – to ensure painless and foolproof executions.
It was an important moment for Oklahoma, which had much to prove. Six months previously the state had conducted one of the most revolting executions in recent history. It had strapped Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer and rapist, to a gurney and over the next 43 minutes, proceeded to jab needles into him during which time he was witnessed writhing and groaning before he died.
It was in the wake of the Lockett horror show that the Oklahoma corrections department invited us in that bright October morning, to demonstrate to us – and through us the world – that it had learned the lessons of that terrible event. In the future, Oklahoma would use a fail-safe system of checks and balances to ensure that it killed its prisoners with propriety and dignity.
Fast forward to this week, and the grand jury report released on Thursday night. Its 106 pages tell a very different story.
The report reveals that within days of the tour of the state’s ultimate death chamber, state officials set in train a sequence of events that would lead to the execution of Charles Warner using entirely the wrong drug – without anyone even noticing.
In late October 2014, the director of the department of corrections met with a licensed doctor and paramedic who formed the team that would place the IV tubes into Warner’s veins through which he would be pumped with lethal drugs.
At the meeting, and in subsequent conversations, the director talked about the execution protocol and the drugs that were to be used, “but never provided the IV team leader [with] a written copy of the protocol”.
In fact, the paramedic told the grand jury that he had no idea what his role entailed until he was given hands-on training the day before Warner was to be put to death. Such was the paucity of preparation that he only realized his job was to help draw up the syringes on the day of the execution itself.
The report goes on to describe how lethal injection drugs were obtained by the state for the Warner execution, a complicated job given the tight ethical boycott of US corrections departments imposed by pharmaceutical companies and governments. Under the old execution protocol, three Oklahoma officials were required to go in person with a written prescription to procure lethal injection drugs.
In the Warner case, a senior corrections official identified only as “Warden A” ordered the drugs over the phone. In November 2014, only a month after the reporters’ tour of the pristine death chamber, the anonymous pharmacist in turn duly ordered five cartons of the sedative midazolam and six cases of potassium chloride solution, a toxic chemical that stops the prisoner’s heart.
The pharmacist used a wholesalers’ website to purchase the drugs, but in a mix-up ordered potassium acetate, a totally different chemical than the potassium chloride listed in the protocol. “In my head I was not thinking potassium chloride, because I was looking at it, going, it’s potassium. Pharmacy brain versus probably a law brain, I guess,” the pharmacist told the grand jury.
For the next 27 pages, the grand jury report describes the journey of the wrong drugs from the pharmacist’s premises into Warner’s veins in surreal detail, reading like a passage out of Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Source: The Guardian, May 20, 2016