Officials in two states with executions planned in the coming days and weeks called them off Friday for very different reasons. An Oklahoma court indefinitely halted lethal injections due to confusion over why the state obtained the wrong lethal-injection drug, while Missouri’s governor commuted the death sentence of an inmate scheduled to die next week.
All told, the actions Friday meant that three of the six inmates scheduled to die by lethal injection over a nine-day period in the United States would not be put to death. Two of the other three inmates set to die during this window have been executed: Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner early Wednesday morning, while Virginia executed Alfredo Prieto late Thursday night. The remaining inmate, Juan Garcia, remains scheduled to die Tuesday, the same day Missouri had intended to carry out its execution.
The Oklahoma decision came less than two days after the state hastily called off the execution of Richard Glossip at the last minute. Officials said this happened because they realized they had the wrong lethal injection drug.
Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general, asked the state court of criminal appeals Thursday to stay executions to allow “time to evaluate” what happened and why corrections officials had the wrong drug for the halted execution of Glossip.
The court granted the request Friday. Glossip’s execution had been rescheduled by Gov. Mary Fallin (R) for Nov. 6, the fourth execution date for him so far this year; two other inmates — Benjamin Cole and John Grant — were scheduled to die later this month. All three executions will be on hold indefinitely.
“I am mindful of the families who have suffered an agonizing time through this process, and my heart breaks for them,” Pruitt said in a statement. “At least three families have waited a combined 48 years for closure and finality after losing a loved one. Yet, they deserve to know, and all Oklahomans need to know with certainty, that the system is working as intended.”
On Thursday, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections said that its officials had ordered the necessary drugs a month before Glossip’s execution, which at one point was scheduled for Sept. 16. (Glossip’s execution earlier this year was also called off when the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear a challenge from him regarding Oklahoma’s lethal-injection procedure, which the justices upheld as constitutional. The Sept. 16 execution was also called off with hours to spare.)
When authorities received the sealed box of drugs at the state penitentiary in McAlester on Wednesday, they opened it and found three drugs: Midazolam, rocurnium bromide and potassium acetate. Potassium chloride is listed as the third drug int he state’s three-drug lethal injection mix, but not potassium acetate.
Robert Patton, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, told reporters that the provider said potassium acetate and potassium chloride are “medically interchangeable.” But because of the uncertainty regarding the drug, and an inability to find any potassium chloride, Patton said he asked Fallin to call off the execution.
Later on Friday, another upcoming execution was permanently called off. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) on Friday said he had commuted the death sentence of an inmate set to die by lethal injection next week, calling off what would have been the state’s seventh execution this year.
Kimber Edwards was convicted of hiring a man to execute Kimberly Cantrell, his ex-wife. While he was sentenced to die, the person authorities said carried out the crime was given a sentence of life in prison. Rather than being executed Oct. 6, Edwards has been given a sentence of life in prison without parole.
In Edwards’s case, a group of religious leaders and elected officials wrote in a letter to Nixon earlier this year asking the governor to assign a group to study whether racial bias played a role in Edwards’s sentence. The letter said that during Edwards’s trial, the prosecutor in the case removed three African Americans from the jury pool, and the group asked Nixon to stay the execution until the group could investigate.
Nixon said that after reviewing the facts of Cantrell’s murder, he remained convinced that the jury was correct in convicting Edwards.
“At the same time, however, I am using my authority under the Missouri Constitution to commute Edwards’ sentence to life without the possibility of parole,” he said in a statement. “This is a step not taken lightly, and only after significant consideration of the totality of the circumstances.”
Missouri has recently become a much more active death-penalty state; since the beginning of 2013, only Texas has executed more inmates.