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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Oklahoma to continue lethal injections after man vomits during execution

The man, John Marion Grant, was the first person executed by Oklahoma since prison officials made severe mistakes in previous executions, including using the wrong drug in one instance and, in another, allowing a prisoner to regain consciousness.

By: New York Times |
October 30, 2021 6:04:13 pm
This Oct. 9, 2014, file photo shows the gurney in the the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. John Grant, 60, was convicted of stabbing a prison cafeteria worker to death in 1998 | AP Photo

The director of Oklahoma’s prison system said Friday that he did not plan to make any changes to the agency’s lethal injection protocols, a day after a man vomited while shaking for several minutes during the state’s first execution since 2015.

The man, John Marion Grant, was the first person executed by Oklahoma since prison officials made severe mistakes in previous executions, including using the wrong drug in one instance and, in another, allowing a prisoner to regain consciousness.

Grant, 60, was convicted of stabbing a prison cafeteria worker to death in 1998.

Reporters who have witnessed executions said vomiting was rare in their experience, but Scott Crow, director of Oklahoma’s prison system, said that the doctor who had been monitoring the execution told him it was “not a completely uncommon occurrence” for someone to vomit while being sedated.

Sean Murphy, an Associated Press reporter who witnessed Grant’s death, had told other reporters Thursday night that it appeared Grant had convulsed about two dozen times after being administered a sedative, the first of three drugs used in the execution. Murphy said it was unclear whether Grant was conscious, although he was breathing. Before the other drugs were administered, the doctor entered the execution chamber to wipe vomit from the face of Grant, who was strapped to a gurney.

The Oklahoma State Penitentiary is seen in McAlester, Oklahoma September 30, 2015. (Reuters)

In a virtual news conference Friday, Crow largely confirmed Murphy’s account, although he said that Grant had been “dry heaving” before he vomited, not convulsing, and that Grant had done so fewer than 10 times.

“I will agree inmate Grant’s regurgitation was not pleasant to watch,” Crow said. “But I do not believe that it was inhumane.”

Grant’s reaction to the sedative drew comparisons to Oklahoma’s execution of Clayton D. Lockett in 2014, which lasted for 43 minutes. Lockett appeared to writhe in pain after medical staff failed to ensure that the sedative flowed directly into his bloodstream.

In both cases, prison officials administered a sequence of three drugs, beginning with midazolam, the sedative. In 2015, the Supreme Court narrowly allowed Oklahoma to continue using the drug, but legal challenges have continued. A federal judge in Oklahoma has set a trial for February in a long-running lawsuit filed by death row prisoners over whether the drugs risk subjecting them to an unconstitutional amount of pain and suffering.

“Our argument has always been that midazolam should not be used in carrying out executions, and the state’s response is that the drug will do the trick,” said Dale Baich, a lawyer for the prisoners in the lawsuit. “And over and over and over again, we’ve learned that it just doesn’t work.”

Some states, as well as the federal government — which executed 13 people under President Donald Trump after a 17-year moratorium — use a single drug, pentobarbital, in executions. But many states, including Oklahoma, have had difficulty obtaining the drug, in part because companies do not want to be associated with capital punishment.

Crow, the prison director, was steadfast Friday in arguing that the execution had been carried out “without complication” because Grant’s reaction did not inhibit the process and that it was humane because Grant was sedated when he was vomiting, according to the doctor. Grant was declared unconscious about six minutes after he was given the sedative; he was then given the two drugs that paralyzed him and stopped his heart. Grant stopped breathing about nine minutes after the process began.

Tamya Cox-Toure, left, and Natalie Bruno protest Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021 in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma executed John Grant Thursday for the 1998 stabbing death of a prison cafeteria worker, the state’s first lethal injection following a six-year moratorium. (AP Photo)

In a statement, the daughter of Gay Carter, the prison cafeteria worker whom Grant was convicted of killing, said her family was “starting to get justice” for her death.

“The death penalty is about protecting any potential future victims,” the daughter, Pamela Gay Carter, said in the statement, noting that Grant had killed her mother while serving a prison sentence for armed robbery convictions. “Even after Grant was removed from society, he committed an act of violence that took an innocent life.”

For much of the day Thursday, it was unclear whether Grant’s execution would happen, amid a last-minute legal fight. Then, in the afternoon, the Supreme Court lifted a stay of the execution, clearing the way for it to take place.

Crow said Grant was “verbally abusive” to prison staff throughout the day and grew more agitated as his execution neared. Journalists said they could hear him shout, “Let’s go” several times before a curtain was raised, allowing witnesses to see him, and that he then shouted profanities.

Murphy, one of five reporters who witnessed Grant’s death, said at a news conference that he had witnessed about 14 executions and had never seen someone vomit during one. He also reported that a retired Associated Press journalist who had witnessed more than 400 executions said he could remember only one of those people vomiting.

Dr. Joel Zivot, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said it was possible Grant’s vomiting had been caused by an acidic solution in which the sedative was suspended. He said it was a rare outward reaction that could signify the distress he argues many people feel as they are paralyzed and then killed by lethal injection.

“What’s so sinister about this is how it’s designed to be outwardly bland,” said Zivot, who opposes executions. “This is just another example of what, generally, is always happening — we just don’t always see it.”

Maurie Levin, a lawyer in Texas who has worked on death penalty cases for nearly three decades, said the execution showed the importance of states being more transparent about where they get the lethal drugs they use and how they carry out executions.

“By no means do I want to hold up Texas as a paragon, but Oklahoma has a uniquely horrific and irresponsible track record,” she said. If Oklahoma wasn’t “put on notice” by the state’s botched executions in 2014 and 2015, she said, “I don’t know what notice means.”

The next person scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma is Julius Jones, who was convicted of killing a man in 1999 in front of the man’s sister and daughters while stealing his car. The state has set his execution for Nov. 18. Jones, who has maintained his innocence and said he was framed by a friend who testified against him, has a clemency hearing scheduled for next week.

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