Grand Jury Highlights Rampant Death Penalty Malfeasance

By Marc Hyden

June 20, 2016—Conservatives have long warned that government power combined with unnecessary state secrecy creates an environment that fosters official abuse and malfeasance, and unfortunately, Oklahoma recently validated our longstanding concerns. Recently, an Oklahoma multi-county grand jury released its findings after spending months investigating the state’s latest lethal injection fiasco, and its conclusions were appalling.

Sooner State officials have taken great efforts to shroud their lethal injection drug acquisitions in secrecy, and the negative side effects of that decision occurred as early as January 15, 2015 when Charles Warner was executed. It clearly didn’t go as planned, and the episode ultimately climaxed with Warner shouting, “My body is on fire!” before finally succumbing to death. Regrettably, his execution was just the latest in a spate of bungled attempts. Nevertheless, the state ramped up its efforts to continue executions, and Richard Glossip, a man who may be innocent, was next in line. As he nervously awaited his own death, he received a surprising last minute stay of execution because Oklahoma bureaucrats admitted they weren’t in possession of the approved chemicals. Then the state also begrudgingly acknowledged that it had used the incorrect compound in Warner’s execution.

Following this embarrassing admission, the state ordered a multi-county grand jury to investigate the issue. Before long, a string of high-ranking Oklahomans “willingly” resigned from their public posts, which foreshadowed the audit’s loathsome findings. After months of hearings, the grand jury’s final report was released to the public, and it exposed widespread governmental incompetence.

The investigation revealed that when the Department of Corrections ordered one of the three approved lethal injection drugs, potassium chloride, the state’s pharmacist carelessly shipped potassium acetate, which is commonly used to de-ice airport runways. Regardless of this blatant oversight, programmatic redundancy and basic literacy should have prevented the chemical from ever being used. However, a series of grossly negligent acts occurred. The government agent who transported the drug apparently didn’t bother to confirm whether potassium chloride had been procured. Then the Department of Corrections failed to properly inventory the compound, as required by the state, and the prison’s section chief similarly didn’t notice the mix up. Finally, when Charles Warner was being injected with the deadly combination in January 2015, the execution team astonishingly didn’t observe that they were handling the wrong drug, which resulted in an execution gone awry.

As Richard Glossip was prepared for his scheduled death in September 2015, the prison warden discovered that at least one of the lethal injection vials donned the wrong drug name, but she shamefully neglected to inform anyone about the findings. Nevertheless, someone thankfully noticed that the state was in possession of the wrong drug, but instead of immediately halting the execution, the Governor’s General Counsel, Steve Mullins, intervened. He advocated for executing Glossip with potassium acetate anyway. When officials objected, he exclaimed that the drugs were close enough and flippantly instructed them to “Google it.”

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s office argued for a stay of execution, but Mullins again pressed corrections officials to proceed nonetheless. Ultimately, reason prevailed and the execution was halted. However, the grand jury found that the Governor’s General Counsel did not want to publicly admit that the stay was due to a drug mix up because he’d have to concede that Charles Warner had been executed using an unauthorized compound. This would have been tantamount to a scandalous government cover-up.

While the grand jury’s investigation sparked a “willful” exodus of high-level administrators, the findings have also generated an outcry from the general public and Oklahoma officials. The grand jury’s presiding judge described the episode as “monkey business,” and Oklahoma’s Attorney General labeled those involved in the series of mistakes as “cavalier, careless,” and “dismissive of established procedures.” Regardless of this ineptitude and misconduct, no one has been held legally responsible. Instead, Oklahomans have merely been given a hollow pledge to try to do better next time.

Conservatives are well aware that a lack of government transparency and accountability breeds rampant misconduct, a point that the Oklahoma State government has clearly exemplified. Sooner State officials have attempted to regain the people’s confidence, but regardless of their promises, the state has abundantly proven that it cannot be trusted with the death penalty. However, this isn’t an isolated incident. Since 2014, Ohio and Arizona have also mishandled executions, and last year, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts was ridiculed once it was discovered that he had used public funds to purchase illegal death penalty drugs. While capital punishment’s risk to innocent life, high cost, and lack of efficacy are widely known and condemned by conservatives, it appears that governments cannot even properly purchase lethal injection drugs and carry out executions. The death penalty program truly is an unmitigated failure.