Oklahoma, which had suspended the application of the death penalty for several years after experiencing failures with dramatic consequences, has just established a schedule providing for the execution of 25 prisoners in two years.
The initiative, approved by a state court a few days ago, raises fears of further abuses, including the potential execution in September of a former hotel manager deemed innocent by a bipartisan group of elected officials.
Robert Dunham, who heads the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a research center on the death penalty, believes that the decision to carry out “chain” executions practically guarantees that mistakes will be made and that prisoners will be denied their right to full answer and defence.
Unfortunately, it appears that Oklahoma is more concerned with its willingness to carry out executions than with ensuring the fairness of proceedings and addressing questions raised by the methods used.
Robert Dunham, of the Death Penalty Information Center
Announcing the timeline days ago, state Attorney General John O’Connor argued in a statement that families of some of the victims of death row inmates have been waiting decades for “justice to be served.” “.
“My office intends to stand with them as they take another step in the ordeal imposed on them by the murderers,” he said.
Mr. O’Connor also pointed out that the people of Oklahoma had shown themselves to be largely in favor in 2016 during a public consultation to maintain the death penalty for the most “villainous” murders.
The attorney general waited to move forward until a federal judge validated the drug cocktail used by state prison services to inject death inmates on death row.
Lawyers for around 30 detainees launched a lawsuit in 2014 on this subject, alleging that the combination of products chosen was likely to induce pain in violation of the provisions of the Constitution prohibiting “cruel and unusual” punishment.
The plaintiffs were particularly concerned about the use of midazolam as a sedative, alleging that it exerted an insufficient effect to prevent those executed from suffering when the other two products used to paralyze the body and stop the heart were administered.
The judge of record, Stephen Friot, pointed out in a decision handed down at the beginning of June that midazolam was appropriate to “make the inmate insensible to pain for the few minutes required to complete the execution”, even if it is not not “the best product to do it”.
He said defense attorneys had failed to demonstrate that Oklahoma’s method of execution caused “unnecessary pain” and could be considered “unconstitutional.”
According to Mr Dunham, there is “significant” scientific evidence to suggest that people who are executed by injection are at risk of developing pulmonary edema during the procedure and that midazolam does not have a sufficient numbing effect to prevent them from feeling the resulting pain.
One of the expert doctors indicated that they must have felt a feeling of “panic, drowning and asphyxiation”.
Several US states have been forced to experiment with unusual drug cocktails after pharmaceutical companies banned their products from being used to execute prisoners.
Oklahoma decided to suspend the application of the death penalty in 2015 after two botched executions, including one during which the prisoner, Charles Warner, shouted that his “body was on fire”.
Another inmate, Clayton Lockett, died around the same time of cardiac arrest 43 minutes after the start of the procedure.
Executions resumed quietly in 2021, although the authorities had said they wanted to wait for a judgment to be rendered in the prosecution launched in 2014.
Although significant, the controversy over the method of execution used “seems almost minor” in comparison to the “systemic problems” encountered by Oklahoma in the application of the death penalty on the judicial level, notes Mr. Dunham.
Among the 25 detainees whose execution date has just been set are, he said, several people suffering from serious mental health problems or brain damage which should have allowed them to avoid such a sentence.
The guilt of several convicted prisoners is also seriously in doubt, underlines the leader of the DPIC, who is particularly alarmed by the execution scheduled for September of Richard Glossip.
This former hotel manager was sentenced to death for allegedly ordering the 1997 assassination of the establishment’s owner, but an investigation by a law firm at the request of a group of elected officials concluded recently that he was innocent.
One of the elected officials responsible for the initiative, Republican Kevin McDugle, warned in mid-June that he would campaign to have capital punishment abolished in the state if Mr Glossip was indeed executed.
“I believe in capital punishment, I think it should exist, but the procedure leading to a death sentence must be absolutely flawless,” he said.