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Ruling Clears the Way for Oklahoma to Continue Using Midazolam in Executions

Department of Corrections

The drug used in April’s problematic execution of Clayton Lockett will almost certainly be used again.

A federal judge has ruled 21 Oklahoma death row inmates didn’t prove midazolam presents an unacceptable risk of pain and suffering.

Dr. David Waisel is an associate professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School. He said the drug will remain an experimental option.

"We know things in medicine from two reasons: We know because we have lots of clinical experience and we pass this along, and we know because we formally study it," Waisel said. "We will never get clinical experience with these doses of midazolam, nor will we be able to study it."

The drug is just a sedative, so it only reduces anxiety and stops people from remembering events after it’s administered.

"An anesthetic involves more than that," Waisel said. "It involves hypnosis, which is a certain state of the brain under anesthesia, and it involves some level of pain control."

The judge did agree the third drug in the state’s protocol will cause extreme pain in someone who hasn’t been anesthetized.

Oklahoma's three-drug protocol calls for a dose of midazolam followed by vecuronium bromide, a powerful muscle relaxant.

"So you cannot move. So even if the inmate were in distress, we would never know, because the inmate cannot move — if it were given properly in the vein," Waisel said.

Lockett’s execution was plagued by problems establishing and maintaining an IV, so it’s unknown how well that protocol works.

The state’s next execution is scheduled for Jan. 15.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.