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Oklahoma Changes Lethal Injection Protocol, But Keeps Controversial Drug

Oct 01, 2014

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.

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