The number of executions carried out in the nation this year dropped to a level not seen for 25 years, with Oklahoma following that trend, according to a report the Death Penalty Information Center released Wednesday.
The 20 executions carried out in the U.S. were the fewest since 1991, the report states. Executions in the country peaked in 1999 with 90. The Death Penalty Information Center is a nonprofit that monitors U.S. capital punishment.
There were no executions in Oklahoma in 2016 — it’s the first year the state hasn’t executed someone since 1994. Executions in Oklahoma were halted last year after authorities used the wrong lethal drug to carry out an execution and nearly used the wrong drug again while attempting to execute another inmate.
The last person executed in Oklahoma was Charles Warner in 2015. It was the only execution the state carried out that year. DOC received the wrong drug when it executed Warner and again when it planned to execute Richard Glossip the same year.
Glossip’s execution has been stayed four times.
Following the problems in 2015, Attorney General Scott Pruitt launched a multi-county grand jury investigation. In a report released in May, the grand jury said “paranoia” clouded the judgment of top DOC officials.
Following several months of investigation, the grand jury found an “inexcusable failure to act on the part of a few individuals.” The state’s new execution protocol — which took months to devise after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014 — also lacks controls to make sure the proper drugs are used, the grand jury report states.
The state’s executions remain at a standstill while the Department of Corrections reviews the process. But executions won’t continue straight away. Pruitt has said he will wait at least 150 days after the review is finished to request execution dates.
There are 13 death row inmates eligible for execution in Oklahoma.
In 2014, Lockett was the first inmate executed with the controversial drug midazolam. His execution was botched after the doctor improperly inserted a needle to start an IV. Lockett died after 43 minutes, and Warren’s execution was stayed.
After months of investigation and review, the DOC released a revised execution protocol that same year. The protocol was similar to that of Arizona’s, which also used midazolam.
Midazolam is a drug intended to sedate the inmate and is used before drugs that paralyze the inmate and stop the heart. It has been linked to several botched executions over the last few years.
Some experts have said midazolam is not strong enough to render inmates truly unconscious, as alternative drugs available in the past have done. Drugs traditionally used in U.S. executions have grown scarce as European drug companies have refused to allow use of their drugs in executions.
This week, the Arizona DOC agreed to stop using midazolam in its executions. The decision came after a lengthy dispute in court between inmates and the state. Arizona is the first state to abandon the use of the drug.
“The scientific evidence shows this class of drugs is not an appropriate drug in lethal injection executions,” said Dale Baich, an attorney representing the Arizona inmates, in an interview with The Frontier. Baich also represents Glossip.
When asked whether other states might be swayed to follow Arizona in resigning the drug, Baich said they should be. However, Baich said, it is unknown whether Oklahoma even has midazolam.
The report released Wednesday said the decline in executions is also affected by the pharmaceutical industry and measures it has taken to prevent states from using their drugs in executions. The European Union adopted human rights regulations to prevent export of materials and supplies to be used in executions or for torture.
Additionally, a court order directs the federal Food and Drug Administration to prevent the illegal importation of execution drugs.
Robert Dunham, Death Penalty Information Center executive director, said he believes Arizona’s move to stop the use of the drug might prompt other states to follow suit. He said many executions this year that utilized midazolam had “problems.”
“I hesitate to use ‘botched’ because that means what you got was unexpected,” Dunham said. “We know enough about midazolam having history of executions going bad (that) we can now say it is a known risk.”
Change in political climate
The new report points out that while voters nationwide chose to replace prosecutors that often utilized the death penalty, states such as Oklahoma, California and Nebraska have chosen to retain capital punishment.
In November, about 66 percent of Oklahomans voted to approve a ballot question to guarantee that state’s power to impose capital punishment and set methods of execution.
The question gives the state constitutional protection to the death penalty even if a method is ruled to violate the U.S. Constitution.
The vote seemed contrary to a SoonerPoll conducted in August that indicated 63 percent Oklahomans were moving away from the death penalty in favor of life sentences without parole, plus restitution to the victims’ families.
Dunham said it appears the U.S. is seeing a major change in political climate when it comes to the death penalty.
“I think it reflects divisions in how Americans think about the death penalty,” Dunham said.
“When you look at new death sentences, number of executions, public opinion polls, they’re all in the same direction.”
The Frontier partners with The Marshall Project in Next to Die, which tracks use of the death penalty in 10 states including Oklahoma.