Oklahoma resumes executions after botched one

McALESTER, Okla. -- Oklahoma moved toward its first execution since a botched lethal injection last spring after a divided U.S. Supreme Court said Thursday it wouldn't consider whether a sedative given to the inmate would be strong enough to render him so unconscious that he wouldn't feel other drugs stop his lungs and heart.

A Florida execution that would use the same method as Oklahoma's was temporarily put on hold when its condemned killer raised similar questions with justices.

Oklahoma prison officials ordered new medical equipment, more extensive training for staff and renovated the execution chamber inside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary to prevent the kind of problems that arose during the execution of Clayton Lockett in April. Lockett writhed on the gurney, moaned and tried to lift his head after he'd been declared unconscious, prompting prison officials to try to halt his execution before he died.

Attorneys for the state say a failed intravenous line and a lack of training led to the problems with Lockett's injection, not the drugs. Still, Oklahoma ordered a five-fold increase in the sedative dose.

Both Oklahoma and Florida start their executions with the surgical sedative midazolam, which has been challenged in court as ineffective in rendering a person properly unconscious before the second and third drugs are administered, creating a risk of unconstitutional pain and suffering.

Charles Frederick Warner, the 47-year-old Oklahoma inmate scheduled to die Thursday, and three other Oklahoma death row inmates asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop their executions. They fear doses of rocuronium bromide, which stops an inmate's breathing, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart, could leave an inmate in excruciating pain but unable to cry out.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor referred the inmates' request to the whole court, which voted 5-4 against a stay of execution.

"The questions before us are especially important now, given States' increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution," she wrote for the dissenters. "Petitioners have committed horrific crimes, and should be punished. But the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no one should be subjected to an execution that causes searing, unnecessary pain before death."

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt had said Wednesday the state Department of Corrections "has responded with new protocols that I believe, prayerfully, will provide them more latitude in dealing with exigent circumstances as they arise." Before the court Thursday, the state said it had a "sacred duty" to enforce its judgments.

By increasing its midazolam dosage to five times the amount, Oklahoma plans to mirror the exact recipe that Florida has used in 10 successful executions.

But midazolam also was used in problematic executions last year in Arizona and Ohio, where inmates snorted and gasped during lethal injections that took longer than expected.

"There is a well-established scientific consensus that it cannot maintain a deep, comalike unconsciousness," the Oklahoma inmates' attorneys wrote in the petition with the nation's highest court.

Florida plans to execute Johnny Shane Kormondy, 42, for killing a man during a 1993 home-invasion robbery in Pensacola, while Oklahoma intends to execute Warner for killing his roommate's infant daughter in 1997 in Oklahoma City.

Pruitt said state prison officials have been unable to secure other, more effective drugs because the manufacturers oppose their use in executions.

"Pentobarbital is best," the attorney general said. "It's worked in our state, but the manufacturers of pentobarbital will not sell that drug ... to a state for death penalty purposes."

During a three-day hearing last month before a federal judge in Oklahoma City, the Department of Corrections' former top attorney, Michael Oakley, testified that midazolam was selected after he talked to counterparts in other states and conducted his own online research. Oakley also said he reviewed trial testimony from a medical expert who testified about the drug's effectiveness during a legal challenge to its use in executions in Florida.

A state investigation into Lockett's botched execution in Oklahoma last year determined that a single IV line failed and that the drugs were administered locally instead of directly into his bloodstream.

Since then, Oklahoma has ordered new medical equipment such as backup IV lines and an ultrasound machine for finding veins, and renovated the execution chamber with new audio and video equipment to help the execution team spot potential problems.