Oklahoma has a supply of the drugs needed to carry out an execution — it just doesn’t have the drugs themselves

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The Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma. Shane Bevel/The Frontier

Oklahoma has a supply of the drugs needed to carry out an execution — it just doesn’t have the drugs themselves

Oklahoma’s prison system was one of several that received a letter earlier this month from a group of healthcare officials and experts asking to divert drugs used for executions to hospitals seeking to treat COVID-19 patients. 

But the state, which only recently announced it was seeking to soon begin executions by lethal injection after a five-year death penalty hiatus, doesn’t have any of the drugs on hand, Oklahoma Department of Corrections spokesman Matt Elliott said.

Elliott told The Frontier on Wednesday that DOC has a located supply of the drugs and can receive them if needed for an execution, but doesn’t actively have a store of them.

“I think it’s more that we’re able to get them,” Elliott said of the drugs. “We have a source.”

Oklahoma is one of 28 states with either the death penalty or a governor-imposed moratorium, according to the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center.

Elliott also said that outside of the letter urging prison systems to turn over drugs, they don’t have an actual request from a medical facility for any type of medication.

The letter asked states to “release these medicines to healthcare facilities in your states so they may be used to treat COVID-19 patients.” 

As of Wednesday morning, there have been 2,894 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma and 170 deaths. At least 608 people have been hospitalized with serious COVID-19 cases. 

The three-drug cocktail that will eventually be used by Oklahoma to lethally inject an inmate include midazolam, a sedative, and vecuronium bromide, a paralytic. The letter asked Oklahoma and other states to divert drugs such as those to help fill resource gaps.

“Scarce resources include not only ventilators and masks, but also key medicines such as sedatives and paralytics needed for intubation and mechanical ventilation,” the letter states.

Midazolam is on the shortage lists of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists and the Food and Drug Administration. Vecuronium bromide is on the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists short list. 

Oklahoma served as something as a testing ground for lethal injection executions, and for years had one of the busiest death chambers in the nation. But that all came to a halt in 2015 when the DOC mishandled a number of executions, including at least twice either using or attempting to use the wrong drug.

Part of the explanation DOC officials gave for the drug mix-ups was that the drugs themselves had become difficult to find. Medical professionals have argued they do not want to be involved in the taking of a life, and finding a pharmacist willing to compound the mixtures for use in executions became exceedingly difficult.

So, for a time, Oklahoma appeared poised to become the first state to use nitrogen hypoxia, or inert gas inhalation, in executions. That method would replace the oxygen being breathed in by an inmate with an inert gas, supposedly resulting in unconsciousness and a painless suffocation.

But, like with the lethal injection drugs, the state had similar problems acquiring a device that would introduce the inert gas. So in February, Oklahoma announced it had abandoned the nitrogen hypoxia plan and would instead return to lethal injection.

In doing so, state officials said they had located a supply of the drugs necessary to carry out a lethal injection. But state law protects them from having to divulge the supplier of the drugs, so the available stockpile — and who has it — is unknown. 

For now, the death penalty is still on hold in Oklahoma. The release of the new death penalty protocol in February was supposed to trigger a 150-day stay, at which point state officials could begin scheduling executions. But attorneys for death row inmates are arguing in federal court that Oklahoma’s protocol didn’t meet certain specifications needed to begin the 150-day stay, and are arguing that the death penalty here is still on hold. That case is pending.

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Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan has two kids, three dogs, and no time to himself. He's fueled by QuikTrip and Twitter. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
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