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Oklahoma judge rules against death row inmates in case challenging execution protocol

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A federal judge in Oklahoma ruled today that the state's lethal injection method is constitutional. The case challenged the execution protocol on behalf of two dozen death row inmates. The ruling means the state can now ask for execution dates for all of them. Reporter Chris Polansky of member station KWGS in Tulsa has been following the case. And a warning - this story contains vivid descriptions of executions.

Chris is with us now. Chris, this ruling comes after a trial last March. As I understand it, the inmates argued that the way Oklahoma carries out the death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution. What did the judge say in his ruling today?

CHRIS POLANSKY, BYLINE: That's right. Judge Stephen Friot issued a written ruling, and he said that the inmates just failed to meet the burden needed to conclude the execution protocol constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

PFEIFFER: That simple. So during the trial, what were the arguments from each side? And would you start us off with the argument by the plaintiffs?

POLANSKY: Sure. Particular experts testifying for the inmates said there are real problems with the three-drug protocol Oklahoma uses, so much so that it should be considered cruel and unusual. At issue is the drug midazolam, which they argue leaves inmates able to feel pain during executions. The drug has been challenged in other states, too.

During this trial, the plaintiffs pointed to a botched execution last October as an example. The inmate convulsed and vomited after the drug was given. Experts testified he'd suffered from fluid in the lungs, something this show has reported on back in 2020 - this edema, which is relatively common in death row inmates who are executed. Many experts think it shows people are in great pain and distress as they die.

PFEIFFER: And then the defense argument - how did the defense counter this presentation by the prosecution?

POLANSKY: Well, witnesses for the state argued the opposite. Dr. Ervin Yen is an anesthesiologist and former Republican state senator who's on contract for the state to witness executions. He says inmates are unconscious and don't feel anything as they die. It is important to note that inmates weren't arguing to have their death sentences commuted, they just wanted to choose other lethal injection drugs or a firing squad, which hasn't ever been used in Oklahoma but is on the books.

PFEIFFER: And, Chris, as you know, Oklahoma has had problems over the years in carrying out the death penalty. Would you give us a little overview of that history?

POLANSKY: Sure. So before last October, the state had gone nearly seven years without an execution. And that's because in 2014 and '15, there was a series of botched executions. One man took nearly 45 minutes to die and writhed on the gurney because the IVs were placed incorrectly. Another man was executed using the wrong drugs and, as he was dying, said he felt like he was on fire.

The lead plaintiff on this lawsuit came within minutes of being killed back in 2015 before corrections officials realized they had the wrong drugs on hand. So the state adopted a moratorium. But now, seven years later, the first execution was again botched.

PFEIFFER: So now that this Oklahoma federal judge has ruled that the state's lethal injection method is constitutional, what happens now?

POLANSKY: Well, Jennifer Moreno, an attorney for the prisoners, says that they're assessing options for an appeal. Meanwhile, the state attorney general's office has a statement out celebrating the ruling. They say they plan this week to request execution dates.

PFEIFFER: That is Chris Polansky of member station KWGS in Tulsa. Chris, thank you.

POLANSKY: Thank you, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "GREYHOUNDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.