Biden has stated that he wants to end the practice of federal executions, though he can’t stop ones by the states. However, most Americans still favor the death penalty (60% approve, 39% oppose). And so, apparently, does the Supreme Court. As reader Ken emailed me:
SCOTUS lifted the stay of execution on two Oklahoma death-row inmates imposed by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The three liberal justices dissented. (Justice Gorsuch took no part in the decision, presumably because he had considered one or both of the cases while he was a 10th Circuit judge, prior to his appointment to the high court.)One of the inmates was executed tonight within hours of the ruling; the other is scheduled for execution on Nov. 18th. The NYT article reporting SCOTUS’s action recounts Oklahoma’s history of botched executions.
The Associated Press’ Sean Murphy, who witnessed the execution, described what he saw after Grant was injected with the first of three execution drugs called midazolam.
“He did convulse more than two dozen times, and those were pretty violent convulsions while he was strapped to the gurney,” Murphy said. “Then he began to vomit. The vomit pooled in his mouth and ran down his face. At that point, he was still trying to breathe because you could see bubbles coming out of his mouth as he attempted to breathe.”
Murphy said he’s seen more than a dozen executions, and he’s never seen an inmate vomit like that. He added that the only other time he’s seen violent convulsions like this was during the botched execution of Clayton Lockett, one of the last before Oklahoma stopped executions.
“We have come to the conclusion that for the third time in a row, the Oklahoma lethal injection protocol did not work how it was supposed to work,” said Dale Baich, one of the lawyers challenging Oklahoma’s use of midazolam.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections later released a statement saying the execution was carried out “without complications.” ODOC officials also shared a statement from the daughter of Grant’s victim, saying in part that she prays justice prevails for other victims’ loved ones.
Midazolam, a benzodiazepine normally used as a light anesthetic to calm patients before surgery or during colonoscopies, is now used by seven states as the first drug in the three-drug execution sequence. But it has an uneven history, being part, for example, of one execution where the inmate was given 15 doses and took two hours to die. One problem is that no drug company will sell it for execution purposes, so the states have to get it from secondary sources like “compounding pharmacies” that aren’t subject to FDA standards or approval. This means that drugs could be made in improper ways or be contaminated. Here’s what the Death Penalty Information Center says of Midazolam:
MIDAZOLAM: Seven states have used midazolam as the first drug in the three-drug protocol: Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, Alabama, Virginia, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Oklahoma used midazolam in the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014, and Lockett died after the procedure was halted. Alabama’s use of midazolam in the execution of Ronald Smith in December 2016, resulted in nearly fifteen minutes of Smith heaving and gasping for breath. Arkansas’s use of use midazolam in four executions in April 2017 raised concerns and in the execution of Kenneth Williams, witnesses reported coughing, convulsing, lurching and jerking. In January 2017, Florida abandoned its use of midazolam as the first drug in its three-drug protocol and replaced it with etomidate. Two states have used midazolam in a two-drug protocol consisting of midazolam and hydromorphone: Ohio (Dennis McGuire) and Arizona (Joseph Wood). Both of those executions, which were carried out in 2014, were prolonged and accompanied by the prisoners’ gasping for breath. After its botched execution of McGuire, Ohio abandoned its use of midazolam in a two-drug protocol, but then in October 2016 decided to keep midazolam in a three-drug protocol. In December 2016, Arizona abandoned its use of midazolam in either a two-drug or a three-drug protocol. Three states have, at some point, proposed using midazolam in a two-drug protocol (Louisiana, Kentucky, and Oklahoma) but none of those states has followed through with that formula. Some states have proposed multiple protocols. Missouri administered midazolam to inmates as a sedative before the official execution protocol began.
Regardless, though, I oppose any killing in return for killing; life without parole (or, better, Norway’s system of 21-year sentences with periodic evaluation after that) is sufficient punishment. The Supreme Court apparently disregards this shameful history of botched executions. Biden should commute every federal death sentence to a life sentence, but he can’t do squat about state executions.