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October 29, 2021

Will "outcry" over ugly details of latest Oklahoma execution impact its plans to have six more in coming months?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the first word of the headline, and then the last sentence of the body, of this new Guardian piece: "Outcry after Oklahoma prisoner vomits and convulses during execution."  Here are the basics:

Oklahoma is coming under sharp criticism after witnesses to the state’s first judicial killing for six years described gruesome scenes of the dying prisoner convulsing and vomiting as he was administered the lethal injections.

John Grant, 60, was pronounced dead at 4.21pm on Thursday at McAlester state penitentiary after he was injected with a triple cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Later, the department of corrections said the killing had gone “in accordance with protocols and without complication”.

But eyewitness accounts from reporters at McAlester’s supposedly state-of-the-art death chamber gave a very different account.  Dan Snyder, an anchor at the Oklahoma TV channel Fox 25, said that events went drastically off course the instant the first drug, the sedative midazolam, was injected into the prisoner.  “Almost immediately after the drug was administered, Grant began convulsing, so much so that his entire upper back repeatedly lifted off the gurney,” Snyder reported. “As the convulsions continued, Grant then began to vomit.  Multiple times over the course of the next few minutes medical staff entered the death chamber to wipe away and remove vomit from the still-breathing Grant.”

It took 15 minutes for Grant to be declared unconscious by medical staff, after which the vecuronium bromide, which paralyses the body, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart, were given. On Twitter, Snyder gave his response to the state’s official claim that all had gone according to plan. “As a witness to the execution who was in the room, I’ll say this: repeated convulsions and extensive vomiting for nearly 15 minutes would not seem to be ‘without complication’.”

Accounts of the botched execution of Grant, who was being put to death for the murder in 1998 of a prison cafeteria worker while he was already serving a sentence for armed robberies, will come as a deep embarrassment for Oklahoma. No judicial killings have taken place in the state since 2015 after a spate of botched procedures caused widespread alarm and forced the authorities to review their use of lethal injection drugs.

In 2018, officials in the state went as far as to announce they would abandon lethal injections entirely, due to the protocol’s lack of transparency and to the inhumane executions that had taken place. But in August the state reversed that decision, saying it would resume executions without giving an explanation for the U-turn or revealing critical details about how it intended to carry out the killings.

The state’s six-year hiatus was prompted in part by the execution in 2014 of Clayton Lockett, who writhed and groaned on the gurney for 43 minutes before he was declared dead after the intravenous line through which the lethal drugs were delivered was inserted improperly. The gruesome descriptions of his death by eyewitnesses in the Guardian and elsewhere caused nationwide revulsion. The following year the state used the wrong drug to kill Charles Warner. In the wake of these botched procedures a bipartisan commission reviewed the state’s death penalty system and issued a highly critical report that called for the moratorium on capital punishment to be extended....

Grant’s execution was allowed to proceed on Thursday after the US supreme court voted five to three, with the three liberal justices dissenting, to allow the judicial killing to go ahead. It is unclear whether the descriptions of his death will affect future planned executions in the state.

Oklahoma has an aggressive calendar of executions scheduled, with six set to take place by the end of March.

I put the word "outcry" in quotes because, so far, I have mostly seen opponents of the death penalty comment and assail the latest ugly Oklahoma execution.  If only the "usual subjects" are complaining about the execution, I doubt that will slow the state's current plan to execute another half-dozen people in the coming month. But it also seems possible, especially if more evidence of problems with the execution process emerges, that some death penalty supporters in Oklahoma or elsewhere will express concern and be in a position to slow future trips to the death chamber.

Prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: This local article suggests that Oklahoma officials are not troubled by the execution of John Grant. Here is how it stars:

Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow said Friday the agency has no plans to change its execution protocol after a witness said John Marion Grant had about two dozen full body convulsions and vomited during his lethal injection on Thursday.  “Some of the information is either embellished or is not exactly on point,” the DOC director said during a virtual press conference to “clarify” issues.

Crow, who witnessed the execution, said he saw Grant dry heave fewer than 10 times, not convulse. He said Grant did vomit.  “As he started that process, I conferred with the physician we had on site monitoring the process and he advised me that regurgitation is not a completely uncommon instance or occurrence with someone that is undergoing sedation,” Crow said.

October 29, 2021 at 03:45 PM | Permalink


Lethal injection has been subject to extended concern, and not just by people against all executions, for years now.

It led the state of Oklahoma itself, not an opponent of the death penalty, to have an extended look.

We shall see what develops. The state, if gung ho enough, can, like others, determine not enough opposition is out there to matter. They will see "most" from the "usual suspects."

The death penalty has declined in recent years but the public at large only pays attention to some degree. It will partially be up to the people and relevant groups in Oklahoma to determine what to do.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 29, 2021 4:44:04 PM

With the understanding that lawyers are bad people to comment on medical issues, I am seeing one of three possibilities here.

First, this defendant had an allergic reaction to the Midazolam. If this is the case, then the issue becomes how common such reactions are and whether it is possible to screen for this side effect. (Based on my quick google search, nausea is characterized as an infrequent side effect.) As the things noted in the story seem to be potential side effects of Midazolam, this seems to be the most likely explanation. Unless intolerance to Midazolam is common among inmates on Oklahoma's death row, however, this issue should not occur in most executions.

Second, there is something wrong with the amount of Midazolam being administered. I would think that, since Midazolam is intended to be used as a deep sedative, that there is a proper dosage. Whether the protocol is "off" or the person injecting the Midazolam is not accurately prepping the injection, this issue would be an easy fix -- either bring the protocol into compliance with medical norms or give better training to the person prepping the syringes to get the right amount.

Third, there is something wrong at the pharmacy being used by Oklahoma to compound the Midazolam. Given the difficulty of finding compounding pharmacy, this might be the most serious potential problem.

Posted by: tmm | Oct 29, 2021 6:03:02 PM

There is also the fact that the OK authorities are continuing to insist that everything went fine. That can hardly be a position that will resonate even with people who are not especially passionate in opposition to the death penalty.

Posted by: Eric | Oct 30, 2021 11:50:41 AM

Prof. Corinna Barrett Lain, who maybe will be handwaved given she has overall determined executions are inappropriate, was particularly angry on Twitter regarding the results here.

She was among those (see, e.g., "The Politics of Botched Executions"; she is also working on a book on the death penalty) who flagged the problems with use of midazolam.

It isn't just this one case. It keeps on happening. Prof. Lain is part of a small subset who has written particularly on means of execution. There are multiple issues involved.

Concerns specific to the defendant were the subject of multiple court cases. Concerns about compounding pharmacies. Specific procedures. The problems with midazolam specifically. etc.

Flagging problems there is not the same thing as opposing all executions. It is akin to being upset about prison conditions & a response being "oh? so you want to abolish the police too?"

Still turns out that specific locations repeatedly has more problems.

But, I guess that's a realistic view of how the public will react on some level. The decision by Oklahoma to have as many executions at once might raise more concerns locally. A bit of a local issue.

We saw how little the nation paid attention to the federal executions, even though only three (one being Timothy McVeigh) happened since the 1960s. The public's mind was on other things.

The author of this blog does not think the death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution, but supports using the federal government to prosecute given it has more resources. Oklahoma execution people at this point is like that -- it isn't in for a penny, in for a pound.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 30, 2021 1:50:22 PM

It's disgraceful that doctor and pharmacist licensing boards tolerate their involvement in this stuff. The FDA could step up on this issue too.

Sitting around waiting for DP supporters to come to senses they never possessed from the start is not much different from a proposal to do nothing.

Posted by: kotodama | Nov 1, 2021 9:55:13 AM

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