Oklahoma: Drugs Injected into Executed Inmates Corpses

There's a big fight going on in Oklahoma over the scarcity of execution drugs and the use of substitute drugs. Oklahoma is running short on two of the three drugs in its death cocktail and the Court just delayed two executions set for April.

Katie Fretland, writing in Colorado's The Independent, has an excellent report on this. She also made a FOIA request for Oklahoma records. Among other things, the records she received show executioners had injected leftover drugs into the corpses of the executed inmates to dispose of the drugs.

Convicts executed in Oklahoma have in some cases died from overdoses of pentobarbital or sodium thiopental, the anesthetic, rather than the second and third injections in the three-drug cocktail, according to documents obtained by The Independent. Records show executioners then injected the remaining two drugs into convicts’ dead bodies for what forms turned over in response to an open-records request refer to as “disposal purposes.”

Jerry Massie, the spokesman for the prison system, defended the practice, saying it follows state protocol.


But Dr. Joe Cohen, a forensic pathologist, said injecting leftover drugs into dead bodies may distort postmortem toxicology results, thereby preventing the public from knowing what an inmate experienced during the execution.

What the overall fight is about:

The scarcity of lethal injection drugs has prompted concerns that states are turning to compounding pharmacies to concoct virtually unregulated lethal injections that may be more painful and slower to take effect than required by the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Oklahoma has bought lethal injection doses using petty cash accounts that allow the state to protect the identity and avoid scrutiny of its suppliers. Officials won’t say who manufactured and sold the drugs used in at least the last 11 executions, or whether the doses are pure enough to meet what the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled is an obligation to carry out the death penalty as humanely as possible.

In January, it botched an execution:

Michael Lee Wilson, after being injected with pentobarbital meant to knock him unconscious, was fully coherent when he said in the execution chamber that “I feel my whole body burning.” The corrections department refused to say where Wilson’s injection was made, who sold it to the state and whether it had been tested.

When drugs first became scarce in 2011 (due to the European manufacturers refusal to supply them in the U.S. for use in executions, which are outlawed in Europe), Oklahoma passed a secrecy law that states:

“The identity of all persons who participate in or administer the execution process and persons who supply the drugs, medical supplies or medical equipment for the execution shall be confidential and shall not be subject to discovery in any civil or criminal proceedings.”

Where did Wilson's drugs come from? No one will say:

[T]he state in 2012 bought 20 rounds of pentobarbital for $40,000 from an unknown supplier with a check from a petty cash account that shields the identity of the seller. It’s unclear whether the injections were made in a compounding pharmacy or whether a lack of oversight – compared to lethal injections sold by highly regulated pharmaceutical companies – led to the whole-body burning sensation Wilson described in the death chamber.

It's not just Oklahoma.

Unable to buy pentobarbital, Ohio used a never-before tried combination of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone during a January execution. The convict, Dennis McGuire, gasped and convulsed during his execution, which took about 24 minutes, according to media witnesses.

Pentobarbital from an unknown source was used in the June 2011 execution of Roy Willard Blankenship in Georgia. Blankenship’s eyes were open during the procedure, during which he grimaced in pain.

Why is Oklahoma buying so much of these substitute drugs? In addition to the drugs bought in 2012:

[In] August 2011, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections bought $10,400 worth of pentobarbital from an unknown supplier, using petty cash bills.

The state continued to buy bigger stashes of pentobarbital under the cloak of secrecy. It’s unclear why doses of pentobarbital from the $40,000 petty cash purchase in 2012 were unavailable for this month’s executions. Massie, the department spokesman, declined to discuss the ongoing legal matter.

What a revolting situation. Next week, a court in Oklahoma will hold a hearing on a challenge to the secrecy law, brought by the lawyers defending the next two inmates scheduled for state-sanctioned murder.

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  • Display: Sort:
    I don't think any horror story (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Militarytracy on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 06:46:55 PM EST
    Started with a better nested narrative.

    "Revolting" (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by sj on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 06:59:54 PM EST
    is exactly the right word.

    I have never understood (5.00 / 2) (#3)
    by CaptHowdy on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 07:20:14 PM EST
    The painful lethal injection thing.  Why is it not enough that you are killing them?  How hard can it really be kill someone with an injection?  The mob does it all the time.

    Why not just give them a big ole hot shot and let them drift away smiling.

    Btw that is a (5.00 / 2) (#4)
    by CaptHowdy on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 07:22:15 PM EST
    Horrendous story and to be clear I oppose all capital punishment.

    I absolutely oppose capital punishment as well, (5.00 / 2) (#5)
    by Zorba on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 07:48:56 PM EST
    But I really cannot understand, if the more backward states are going to kill people, why cannot they at the very least, find a way to be more humane in their executions.
    Put the poor guy on a morphine drip until he relaxes, and then give him a heroin overdose.
    But g*d forbid, absolutely can't use that!
    Jeebus.  We are still very primitive.
    The other, better solution, of course, is get rid of the death penalty.

    Exactly (5.00 / 2) (#6)
    by CaptHowdy on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 07:54:38 PM EST
    Killing someone with an overdose is not difficult but it's like "we may not be able to make it cruel but we damn sure are not going to make it easy"

    I had to euthanize one of my remaining cats (5.00 / 5) (#8)
    by Mr Natural on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 08:44:43 PM EST
    last week, a heartbreakingly quick process.

    There is something desperately wrong with these fumble-fingered approaches to contriving death, by which I mean, above and beyond the wrongness of killing by the state.


    I held our cat (none / 0) (#10)
    by Mikado Cat on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 10:09:53 PM EST
    when the vet gave the injection, the memory of that last struggled breath will never leave me.

    I have sympathy for the criminal that is dying, but also for the person forced to carry it out. When things go wrong that must be horrible for some.


    The difference (none / 0) (#12)
    by CaptHowdy on Wed Mar 19, 2014 at 08:22:31 AM EST
    Being one has a choice and one does not

    The criminal (none / 0) (#20)
    by Mikado Cat on Sat Mar 22, 2014 at 09:39:26 AM EST
    had a choice, do I murder this person and set them on fire, it was years in the past, but death penalty is a consequence of their choice.

    I think it's because there's this idea (5.00 / 2) (#13)
    by Anne on Wed Mar 19, 2014 at 08:46:48 AM EST
    that a state-ordered death should not be more peaceful than the deaths many of these inmates were convicted of being responsible for.

    Whole thing is just bizarre.


    We are a pretty violent society (5.00 / 3) (#14)
    by MO Blue on Wed Mar 19, 2014 at 09:32:29 AM EST
    I hear quite a number of people express the opinion that this whole debate is stupid because who cares how much they suffer anyway. They are bad people and they deserve to suffer. No suffering is too much in their opinion. Good Christian people all. Of course, if you mentioned that they believe in preaching h&ll fire and damnation they would tell you no that is not what their religion preaches. They believe in Jesus Christ and a loving god.

    The dead guy is dead (none / 0) (#18)
    by Mikado Cat on Thu Mar 20, 2014 at 08:54:52 AM EST
    the damage that a cruel execution does is to society and person tasked with carrying it out.

    I think we have lost our way with punishment of crime, and the all of the processes need some rethinking.


    I don't care if it's Adoph Hitler... (5.00 / 4) (#7)
    by unitron on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 08:18:30 PM EST
    ...once they've been executed the claim the state has on them is over and the state doesn't get to use the corpse for toxic waste disposal or anything else without prior permission of the deceased or afterwards by next of kin or estate executor, no matter how convenient the state finds it.

    Not only that, but (5.00 / 4) (#11)
    by Peter G on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 10:17:07 PM EST
    it probably meets the definition of a crime, "abuse of a corpse."

    To link two stories (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by CaptHowdy on Wed Mar 19, 2014 at 11:11:21 AM EST
    Letting a Phelps (none / 0) (#16)
    by jondee on Wed Mar 19, 2014 at 04:02:57 PM EST
    into law school is like letting Mohamed Atta into flying school.

    As a society we do some odd stuff. (none / 0) (#9)
    by Mikado Cat on Tue Mar 18, 2014 at 10:04:30 PM EST
    I think the "problem" is that some political body has to decide on the method of execution. Any change requires a new group to agree and politically "own" the process they approve. Nobody wants to be tagged with the process, so nothing changes.

    CO seems painless and simple, but there may be issues with the time it takes to die after irreparable harm is done.

    Desecration Of the Dead (none / 0) (#17)
    by john horse on Thu Mar 20, 2014 at 06:00:36 AM EST
    Don't we have laws against desecration of dead bodies?  How is this different?  If you think this is ok, then would you also be ok with it if it was one of your own relatives?  

    Dead bodies are not toxic waste dumpsites.

    Not sure (none / 0) (#19)
    by Mikado Cat on Thu Mar 20, 2014 at 06:15:14 PM EST
    what could be worse than typical funeral practices.