TIME justice

Oklahoma Changes Lethal Injection Protocol, But Keeps Controversial Drug

After an execution widely regarded as botched

The United States’ three executions this year widely considered botched all have at least one thing in common: they’ve all included the use of midazolam, a sedative previously unused in lethal injections.

In January, Ohio executed Dennis McGuire in a 25-minute lethal injection using a two-drug combination of midazolam and hydromorphone. In April, Oklahoma executed Clayton Lockett using midazolam as the first of three drugs in a process that took almost 45 minutes. And in July, Arizona used the same protocol as Ohio to execute Joseph Wood, another lethal injection that took close to two hours.

Late Tuesday, Oklahoma announced new lethal injection procedures requiring more training for executioners and contingency plans if any problems arise. The new protocol also reduces the number of media witnesses from 12 to five. On top of that, it provides the state with four different lethal injection drug combination options, two of which still involve midazolam in a dosage that is five times larger than what was used in Lockett’s execution.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections released the new guidelines this week without comment. But the move appears to be a way for the state to continue executions while opening the door for more desirable and, possibly, effective drugs that have become difficult to obtain.

“I think this represents a tension between the drugs they would prefer to use and what’s available,” says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment organization.

In April, Gov. Mary Fallin ordered an investigation into Lockett’s execution, which led to a report released in September by the Department of Public Safety that found that an IV line into Lockett’s groin had become dislodged and wasn’t immediately discovered. The agency made several recommendations for future executions, and the state’s department of corrections pledged to carry out most of them.

“This is in keeping with their position that the botched execution of Lockett was not due to the drugs used, but to the misplacement of the IV,” Dieter says. “To abandon midazolam might contradict this, and possibly leave them with no drugs to carry out the execution.”

Since pharmaceutical companies began denying states drugs like pentobarbital, a sedative that was widely used up until just a few years ago, midazolam has been easier for prison systems to get. And some states may fear that without it, they may not be able to carry out executions at all.

“I think states like Oklahoma are continuing to use midazolam because so far they can and they don’t know what else to do,” says Deborah Denno, a Fordham University professor who studies lethal injection.

TIME Crime

States Try Secrecy to Protect Lethal Injection Drugmakers

The death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, in 2005.
Kiichiro Sato—AP

Ohio's attorney general proposed shielding the identity of companies who provide drugs for execution, following the lead of other states

States carrying out lethal injections have had to find new ways to execute inmates in recent years. Many have not only experimented with multiple untested drug combinations but have also turned to previously unused pharmacies. And they’ve increasingly tried to block the identity of those drugmakers in order to keep a steady supply of drugs flowing.

A handful of states, including Arizona, Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma, have passed secrecy laws to protect the anonymity of pharmacies, which fear backlash if it becomes public that they’re providing drugs for executions. Ohio—home to a lethal injection earlier this year that was widely considered botched—may be next.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said this week that it’s unlikely executions in the state would proceed unless the legislature provided anonymity for compounding pharmacies and immunity for physicians involved in executions.

“You’re not going to see a death penalty take place until the General Assembly takes action,” DeWine said in a debate with a Democratic opponent Tuesday, according to the Columbus Dispatch. The execution of Ronald Phillips, convicted in the 1993 rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl, is scheduled for Feb. 11.

The comments appeared to be an indication of the difficulties Ohio is having obtaining execution drugs following the lethal injection of Dennis McGuire. In August, a moratorium on executions was set by U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost, who postponed all lethal injections in the state after McGuire—convicted in the 1989 rape and murder of 22-year-old Joy Stewart—was executed in a 25-minute-long execution, in which the inmate reportedly made repeated snoring and snorting noises. The state used two drugs, midazolam and hydromorphone, which were obtained from Illinois-based Hospira, a pharmaceutical company.

Since then, the McGuire family has sued Hospira, forcing Ohio to look elsewhere for drugs. Like most states, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is attempting to acquire drugs from compounding pharmacies, which are not regulated by the federal government. Many pharmacies, however, are unwilling to manufacture drugs for prison systems unless their identities are shielded.

Secrecy laws have become the only way for most states to continue carrying out the death penalty, but those protections are increasingly being challenged.

The Guardian, along with the Associated Press and Missouri’s three largest newspapers, filed a lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Corrections in May, arguing that under the First Amendment the public has a right to know what drugs the state is using and where the state is obtaining them. In September, the Guardian also joined the American Civil Liberties Union and three other newspapers in a similar lawsuit in Pennsylvania.

In a few states, efforts at creating secrecy laws have failed, including in Alabama and Louisiana, both of which failed to pass legislation shielding drugmakers. But most states are pressing forward.

“States certainly aren’t backing away from their secrecy positions,” says Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment organization. “In many states, the legislation already in place has been relied on to claim secrecy. It seems that part of Ohio’s, and other states’, problems stemmed from their secrecy. So it seems ironic that the proposed solution is even more secrecy.”

TIME Crime

Texas Executes Woman for Murder of 9-Year-Old

Texas Execution
This undated handout photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows Lisa Coleman AP

She is the 15th woman to be executed in the U.S. since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976

A Texas woman convicted of starving and torturing her girlfriend’s 9-year-old son to death was executed on Wednesday evening.

Lisa Coleman, the ninth person executed in Texas this year, was put to death by lethal injection about an hour after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a last-ditch appeal from her legal team.

Coleman, 38, was sentenced to death in 2006 for the murder of Davontae Williams, who in 2004 was found dead in the Arlington, Texas, apartment that Coleman shared with the child’s mother, Marcella Williams.

The emaciated child weighed just 36 lb. — about half the weight of the average 9-year-old — and had been suffering from pneumonia, as well as more than 250 injuries, including burns, the Texas Tribune reports. Records showed that Williams and her son had been the subject of six child-abuse investigations, the Tribune says.

Coleman’s lawyers had contended that the boy’s death was an accident, arguing that the child had mental-health issues and that the two women had exercised poor judgment in trying to handle him, according to the Associated Press.

Murdering a child under 10 years old has been listed as a capital murder offense in Texas since 2011.

Williams, the child’s mother, accepted a plea bargain after Coleman was sentenced to death. She is serving a life sentence.

AP reports that Coleman “mouthed an audible kiss,” as well as “smiled and nodded to several friends and an aunt” in attendance behind glass. She also expressed love for her fellow female prisoners on Texas’ death row and said the women should “keep their heads up.”

“I’m all right,” AP reported her as saying. “Tell them I finished strong … God is good.”

Coleman’s last words were, “Love you all,” AP says, before she closed her eyes, took “a couple of short breaths” and stopped moving. She was pronounced dead at 6:24 p.m. C.T., 12 minutes after officials administered the execution drug, pentobarbital.

The next execution in Texas, home to the U.S.’s busiest death chamber, is scheduled for Oct. 15. The inmate, Larry Hatten, was convicted in 1995 of shooting a 5-year-old child to death and attempting to kill the child’s mother.

TIME Crime

Oklahoma is Changing The Way it Carries Out Lethal Injections

The new execution guidelines come after a report detailed the chaotic scene during the prolonged killing of Clayton Lockett

Oklahoma will change how it conducts lethal injections following a recent state report detailing widespread problems in the prolonged execution of death row inmate Clayton Lockett.

Robert Patton, the director of the state’s Department of Corrections, announced Monday that he would implement every recommendation in the Sept. 4 report that he had the authority to carry out and will now be present in the lethal injection for all future executions. The report, conducted by the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, described a chaotic scene on April 29 as executioners attempted and failed multiple times to insert an IV into Lockett’s arms, neck and feet. Officials eventually settled on placing an IV in the inmate’s groin but used a needle that was too short and later became dislodged, allowing the sedative midazolam to leak into the surrounding tissues rather than the bloodstream.

The execution helped renew the public debate over capital punishment and led President Obama to order a review of its practice in the U.S.

The Oklahoma report made numerous suggestions for improving the state’s lethal injection protocol, including keeping the IV insertion point visible at all times, conducting formal training for executioners and maintaining additional execution drugs. Patton said the state will adopt most of those recommendations, but he disagreed with the widely-held view that the 43-minute execution was “botched.”

“The cause of death was judicial execution,” Patton said, according to the Tulsa World, echoing the findings of an autopsy released last month.

Jerry Massie, a spokesperson for Oklahoma’s DOC, said the prison system could not carry out a recommendation calling for only one execution a week because the governor and the courts set those dates. Massie said the DOC would be able to implement the rest of the recommendations without additional costs.

 

TIME Crime

IV Problems Led to Botched Execution in Oklahoma, Report Says

Death row inmate Clayton Lockett is seen in a picture from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections
An improperly placed IV led to the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, according to a new report. Reuters—Oklahoma Department of Corrections

An IV became dislodged sometime during the execution, according to a state review ordered by Oklahoma's governor

Updated: 3:40 p.m E.T. on Sept. 4

An improperly placed IV and inadequate executioner training led to the botched execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett in April, according to a state report released Thursday.

According to the review conducted by the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, an IV placed in Lockett’s groin became dislodged during the execution, causing the area where the IV had been placed to swell to a size “smaller than a tennis ball, but larger than a golf ball.” The improper insertion allowed the first drug administered, a sedative called midazolam, to leak into the surrounding tissues rather than enter Lockett’s vein. It took 51 minutes for executioners to find a vein to administer the execution drugs and another 43 minutes before Lockett was pronounced dead.

Executioners used Lockett’s groin after failing multiple times to insert the IV into his arms, feet and neck. The report found that the corrections officers who carry out Oklahoma’s executions only receive formal training from paramedics on the day of the scheduled killing and operate without contingency measures in the event something goes wrong.

The review was ordered by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin after Lockett’s prolonged execution on April 29 led to a public outcry and a renewed national debate over capital punishment. Lockett was sentenced to die for the 1999 murder of Stephanie Neiman.

The report offers several recommendations, including making the IV insertion point visible at all times (Lockett’s groin was covered by a sheet); establishing formal training programs for those involved in executions; requiring adequate back-up drugs and contingency plans, and scheduling only one execution a week. Oklahoma had planned to execute another inmate, Charles Warner, later that day but postponed it following Lockett’s lethal injection. The back-t0-back executions had put extra stress on the corrections officers charged with carrying them out, according to the report.

The report does not fault any state officials for the prolonged execution, a point some critics have seized on.

“The state’s internal investigation raises more questions than it answers,” said Dale Baich, a lawyer who represents Oklahoma death row inmates, in a statement. “The report does not address accountability. It protects the chain of command. Once the execution was clearly going wrong, it should have been stopped, but it wasn’t. Whoever allowed the execution to continue needs to be held accountable.”

TIME Crime

Judge Frees 2 North Carolina Men Imprisoned for 30 Years

Henry McCollum
Henry McCollum sits on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., on Aug. 12, 2014. He and his half-brother Leon Brown have spent more than three decades in prison for the alleged rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie in 1983 Travis Long—AP

DNA evidence exonerates two half-brothers convicted of the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl

Updated: Sept. 2, 6:30 p.m.

Two half-brothers who were convicted in the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old North Carolina girl were ordered free Tuesday, after a judge ruled that they had been wrongly imprisoned thanks to newly discovered DNA evidence.

North Carolina Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser overturned the convictions of death-row inmate Henry Lee McCollum, 50, and Leon Brown, 46, who had been serving a life sentence. Both men originally confessed to the rape and murder of Sabrina Buie, who was found dead in a soybean field in rural North Carolina.

The ruling comes after an investigation by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that found no DNA evidence at the crime scene that could be traced back to McCollum or Brown.

But a cigarette found and tested in 2010 contained the DNA of another man, Roscoe Artis, who lived a block away from where the crime took place and is serving a life sentence for another murder and rape within weeks of Buie’s death.

“It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost,” said Ken Rose, a lawyer who represents McCollum, in a statement.

McCollum and Brown, both mentally challenged, initially signed statements saying they were responsible for Buie’s death. According to Brown’s defense lawyers, the two signed the statements believing they would go home afterward.

“When Henry gave his confession, he got up to walk out of the interrogation room,” says W. James Payne, a lawyer representing Brown. “He started to walk out the door.”

Both appealed their convictions over the years. In 2006, Brown filed a motion to test the DNA of a cigarette butt found at the crime scene. The results eventually excluded both McCollum and Brown. Several years later, the state’s innocence commission got involved and in July announced that DNA on the cigarette butt actually belonged to Artis.

That led to the scene Tuesday, in which Judge Sasser announced that the convictions for both men were to be overturned.

“I think I was crying harder than Leon,” says Ann Kirby, one of Brown’s lawyers. “To hear the word innocent in a courtroom is the pinnacle for any lawyer. It was history making.”

Both men had been imprisoned for three decades, McCollum being the longest-serving inmate on death row in North Carolina. Brown was on death row for five years until a retrial dismissed his murder charge.

“He always said, ‘They can go to the North Pole, and they’re not going to find anything,’” Kirby says, referring to Brown. “When we heard the verdict, we said, ‘They went to the North Pole.’ And he said, ‘They sure did.’”

TIME justice

California to Fight Ruling Against Death Penalty

California Attorney General Kamala Harris Announces Lawsuit
California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks during a news conference on October 10, 2013 in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

State Attorney General Kamala Harris to appeal

California is appealing last month’s federal court ruling that declared the state’s enforcement of the death penalty to be unconstitutional.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris said Thursday that she would appeal the ruling by Judge Cormac Carney of the U.S. Central District of California, who said that the state’s death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Last month, Carney, a Republican-appointed judge in Orange County, vacated the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who was convicted in the 1995 rape and murder of his girlfriend’s mother but is still on death row. In a lengthy decision, Carney ruled that uncertainties and delays over executions in the state violated inmates’ constitutional rights.

“The dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution,” Carney wrote. “As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”

The case will now move to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I am appealing the court’s decision because it is not supported by the law, and it undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants,” Harris said in a statement. “This flawed ruling requires appellate review.”

Only 13 people have been executed in California since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, and no inmate has been executed since 2006. More than 900 are currently on death row in the state.

TIME Crime

Ohio Still Isn’t Ready to Start Killing People Again

Oklahoma Execution Protocols
Bottles of midazolam at a hospital pharmacy in Oklahoma City. Midazolam is the common thread in three recent lengthly executions in Oklahoma, Ohio and Arizona, July 25, 2014. Sue Ogrocki—AP

A federal judge has delayed three planned executions amid ongoing legal challenges

A moratorium on executions in Ohio that was set to expire this week has been extended by a federal judge, halting future lethal injections in the state at least until next year.

On Aug. 8, Judge Gregory Frost issued a one-page order extending the moratorium, the Associated Press reports. The temporary freeze was put in place after the prolonged execution of Dennis McGuire, who was sentenced to death for a 1989 rape and murder. In January, McGuire appeared to gasp and snore after being given a two-drug combination of midazolam and hydromorphone that had not been previously used in a lethal injection.

In April, Ohio announced that it would increase the dosages of the two execution drugs. The following month, Frost issued a temporary stay of executions as the state re-examined its lethal injection protocol. The latest order delays three planned executions for September, October and November as legal challenges continue over the two-drug method.

McGuire’s lethal injection was the first of three executions around the U.S. this year that appeared to go awry. In April, the convicted killer Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack after writhing and twitching following his injection with an untested blend of drugs. And on July 23rd, Arizona’s execution of convicted murderer Joseph Wood, using the same drug protocol as Ohio did for McGuire, lasted nearly two hours.

TIME Crime

Missouri Executing Inmates at Record Pace

Michael Worthington is pictured in this handout photo
Michael Worthington, convicted in the 1995 rape and murder of a St. Louis woman, is scheduled to be executed Wednesday. Reuters—Missouri Department of Corrections

Backlogged cases are working their way through the system

Updated 6:58 a.m. E.T. on Aug. 6

An execution Wednesday in Missouri brought the state’s pace of executions near record levels, at a time when problems with lethal injections around the U.S. have led to growing scrutiny of the method.

Death row inmate Michael Worthington was put to death early Wednesday, the first in the U.S. since the nearly two-hour-long execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona that again raised questions about the humaneness of lethal injections. It was the seventh this year for Missouri, the most since 2001.

The execution of Worthington—convicted in 1995 of murdering and raping a St. Louis woman—put Missouri alongside Texas and Florida, which lead the country in executions this year at seven each. The three states combined have now executed 21 of the 27 inmates put to death in 2014. The number of executions this year has been accelerated thanks to a combination of backlogged cases now making their way through the system, inmate appeals that have been exhausted in court, and conservative judicial appointments at the state and federal level.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm,” says Sean O’Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who studies capital punishment.

Missouri had already executed 76 inmates since 1976, the year the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, making it fifth among U.S. states behind Texas (511), Oklahoma (111), Virginia (110) and Florida (88).

The most inmates Missouri has executed in one year is nine in 1999. In 2001, it executed seven. But just a few years ago, executions in Missouri were rare. From 2006 to 2012, the state executed just two inmates as it struggled to obtain lethal injection drugs, partly because European pharmaceutical companies began restricting the sale of their products for use in capital punishment.

In May 2012, Missouri announced that it would switch to propofol, an anesthetic. It was the only state to do so, but Missouri never used it. Gov. Jay Nixon stopped the planned lethal injection of Allen Nicklasson in October after the European Union threatened to limit propofol’s export if it was used by prison systems in executions. Fresnius Kabi, a German-based pharmaceutical company, makes the drug—the same drug on which pop star Michael Jackson overdosed in 2009.

In October 2013, the state announced it would start using just one drug—the sedative pentobarbital, and the following month used it in the lethal injection of Joseph Franklin in November and Nicklasson in December. Earlier this year, the Missouri Times reported that the state department of corrections paid $11,000 in cash to obtain the drug from a compounding pharmacy, which is unregulated by the federal government.

Now that the state appears to have an adequate supply of pentobarbital, O’Brien says a backlog of cases is now moving through the system. And inmates’ constitutional challenges are finding little sympathy from federal courts.

“We’re seeing winning motions for requests for stays of execution at the trial level, but the Eighth Circuit vacates those routinely,” O’Brien says, referring to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and adding that a number of conservative judges appointed by President George W. Bush often reverse lower court rulings.

Nixon, a Democrat and death penalty supporter, has also been unwilling to grant clemency in lethal injection cases, many of which the governor worked on as an attorney general for the state.

“He hasn’t ruled on a lot of the clemency petitions before him,” says Susan McGraugh, a St. Louis University law professor. “But the simple answer for why these executions are moving forward is because they can.”

Worthington’s attorneys were still working Tuesday to get a stay of execution through last-minute appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has been largely unwilling to grant stays to death row inmates who argue that their executions shouldn’t go forward based on Eighth Amendment claims. Worthington’s lawyers were attempting to get a stay until a decision is reached in a case in front of the Eighth Circuit brought by Worthington and 14 other Missouri death row inmates who are challenging the secrecy of where the state obtains execution drugs while arguing that lethal injection violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court is scheduled to hear the case in early September.

Missouri has yet to be involved in a recent execution gone awry. One massive dose of a drug like pentobarbital has so far appeared to be a more effective way of administering lethal injection than a two-drug combination. The botched executions of Dennis McGuire in Ohio in January and Joseph Wood in Arizona in July both used a two-drug combination of midazolam and hydromorphone. But Kent Gipson, an attorney for Worthington, thinks that Missouri will join those states soon enough.

“It’s just a matter of time before something goes wrong in one of these in Missouri,” Gipson says. “There’s a bigger risk of it happening when it’s all under a veil of secrecy and from an unknown source that isn’t tested.”

TIME Crime

IV Lines Placed Properly in Two Hour Arizona Execution: Doctor

An undated photo of Joseph Rudolph Wood. Wood who was sentenced to death for the killing in 1989 of his ex-girlfriend and her father, was executed by lethal injection in Florence, Arizona on July 23, 2014.
An undated photo of Joseph Rudolph Wood. Wood who was sentenced to death for the killing in 1989 of his ex-girlfriend and her father, was executed by lethal injection in Florence, Arizona on July 23, 2014. Arizona Department of Correction/EPA

The doctor who performed the autopsy on Joseph Wood says the IV lines that delivered the fatal drugs in the prolonged lethal injection were not the problem

A doctor who performed an autopsy on Joseph Wood, the Arizona death row inmate whose July 23 lethal injection lasted almost two hours, says that prison officials properly placed the IV lines that administer the deadly drugs.

The autopsy, performed by Dr. Gregory Hess of the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, appears to show that a two-drug combination of hydromorphone and midazolam entered Wood’s veins without incident, according to the Associated Press. The statement appears to foreclose one possible explanation for why Wood’s death took so long. A properly administered lethal injection is supposed to last no more than 15 minutes.

Wood, who was sentenced to die for murdering his ex-girlfriend and her father in 1989, reportedly gasped and snorted during his one hour and 57 minute-long execution. The prolonged episode was the third state-sanctioned killing to go awry this year and has renewed the debate over the legality and morality of lethal injection.

The improper placement of IV lines can lead to drugs leaking into the surrounding tissues rather than going directly into the bloodstream. A preliminary autopsy of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett found incorrectly administered IV lines to be the reason his April execution took almost 45 minutes.

 

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