Oklahoma is making death penalty headlines again because the state Department of Corrections used pentobarbital, a barbiturate commonly used for animal sedation and euthanasia, on Dec. 16 to execute John David Duty, 58.
Duty was serving a trio of life sentences for rape, shooting with intent to kill and robbery when he strangled cell mate Curtis Wise in 2001. He pleaded guilty to the murder and received the death penalty. After the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected challenges concerning the use of the drug, Duty became the first U.S. inmate to be executed with a lethal cocktail that included pentobarbital.
This isn’t the first time Oklahoma has led the way for changes in capital punishment. In 1977, the medical examiner Jay Chapman and state legislator, Bill Wiseman, introduced legislation proposing the use of lethal injection for legal execution. The bill passed with large support; since then, all 35 death-penalty states have authorized lethal injection, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
All of these states except Ohio use a three-drug combination for lethal injection. The first drug is a barbiturate, which puts the person in a comatose state before introducing the other two, pancuronium bromide, a paralytic, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Until recently, Oklahoma has used sodium thiopental as the first component, but the drug’s manufacturer, Hospira, has since run out of a key ingredient, stopping production until early this year.
Instead of delaying executions like other states, Oklahoma turned to pentobarbital as a substitute.
“We believed it would be an effective alternative, and we felt it was the best option,” said Jerry Massie, corrections department spokesman.
We believed it would be an effective alternative, and we felt it was the best option.
SATISFIED WITH PROTOCOL The decision sparked international furor and accusations of inhumane execution practices because veterinarians use pentobarbital to euthanize animals. Headlines read “U.S. Execution to Use Animal Drug” and referred to John Duty as a “guinea pig.”
Meanwhile, national critics say pentobarbital is not a reliable execution drug.
“Pentobarbital has never been used in this context, whereas sodium thiopental was well tested,” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center. Theoretically, the first drug serves to put the inmate to sleep enough that he or she won’t feel anything. However, autopsy studies after executions have shown cases where not enough of the initial barbiturate was present in the prisoner’s system to put him or her in a completely unconscious state. This can be risky, Dieter said, because the second two drugs are more dangerous than the first.
“Pancuronium bromide was used by vets as well, but they stopped using it because it can be very painful. … Because it’s a paralytic, it masks what’s really going on.”
According to the Department of Corrections, Duty’s execution with pentobarbital passed without occurrence. At this moment, state authorities have no plans to return to sodium thiopental once Hospira begins producing it again.
“It went fine,” Massie said. “It (pentobarbital) worked like we thought it would.”
Some experts claim decreasing the three drugs to a simpler, single injection is a more humane practice since it cuts down on the chances of the prisoner feeling any pain from the second and third drugs. Oklahoma authorities currently have no intentions of changing from three drugs to one.
“We’re satisfied with our protocol right now,” Massie said. “We’ll see if we need to make any changes in the future.”
In Oklahoma, there was little reaction to the recent change.
“I usually get a call from AFP (Agence France-Presse), and there was maybe one more call than usual,” Massie said.
Recent polls show Oklahomans approve of the death penalty by a 3-to-1 margin, according to Keith Gaddie, vice president of research for SoonerPoll.com.
In the face of these numbers, some activists like Jim Fowler of Oklahoma City are part of the campaign to abolish the death penalty.
In 1986, Fowler’s 82-year-old mother was raped and murdered. Robert Lee Miller Jr. was convicted and sentenced to death, but nine years later was exonerated by DNA evidence.
“My God, we could have killed an innocent man,” Fowler said he remembers thinking.
In 2001, Fowler’s son was put to death after 16 years appealing murder charges of three IGA supermarket employees. Fowler thinks many Oklahomans underestimate their direct involvement with capital punishment.
“We all support the death penalty with our tax dollars,” he said.
However, he is optimistic that Oklahomans will eventually come to realize that life in prison without parole is cheaper on taxpayers and a far worse punishment.
Let them go live in a damn box for however long.
“Let them go live in a damn box for however long,” he said.
James Rowan is a board member of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He and 15 other members marched at the governor’s mansion on Dec. 16 before Duty’s death. The moment when the lethal injection began, they joined hands in silent prayer.
“It’s a shame he was executed,” said Rowan, who has been a defense attorney in Oklahoma for almost 30 years.
“Originally, I thought it was OK if it was the worst of the worst, but with time I’ve become personally opposed to the death penalty.”
He said anti-death penalty activism has a “fatigue factor” — supporters often get overwhelmed. According to Rowan, a lack of funds and effort, especially from younger people, are big roadblocks to the coalition’s campaign.
The state is scheduled Tuesday to execute Jeffrey Matthews, again using pentobarbital.