After Oklahoma executed Charles Warner in January, an autopsy report said that his body and containers for lethal-injection drugs were delivered to the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Among those containers were empty vials labeled potassium acetate, even though the state’s lethal-injection protocol calls for the use of potassium chloride. (There were also empty syringes labeled potassium chloride.)
The autopsy report’s findings were first reported by the Oklahoman newspaper. A copy of the report was sent from the medical examiner’s office to The Washington Post and other news organizations Thursday.
Oklahoma’s lethal-injection protocol lists a trio of drugs that can be used for a three-drug lethal injection: midazolam, a sedative; vecuronium bromide, a paralytic; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. The protocol does not include potassium acetate.
Gov. Mary Fallin (R) said she first learned last week, while officials were discussing delaying Glossip’s execution, that the state may have used potassium acetate to execute Warner.
“As an act of precaution, the attorney general and I decided to stop the execution,” Fallin said in a statement. “During the discussion of the delay of the execution it became apparent that [Department of Corrections] may have used potassium acetate in the execution of Charles Warner in January of this year.”
After the wrong drug was found last week, Scott Pruitt (R), the Oklahoma attorney general, asked the state Court of Criminal Appeals to indefinitely stay that execution and two others originally scheduled for this month while his office investigated what happened before Glossip’s planned lethal injection. The court granted the request last Friday.
Pruitt’s investigation will also include any activity “relevant to the use of potassium acetate and potassium chloride,” which will include things that occurred before Glossip’s halted execution, he said in a statement Thursday.
Oklahoma “has a strong interest in ensuring that the execution protocol is strictly followed,” he said.
Robert Patton, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, told reporters last week that the provider of the drugs said potassium acetate and potassium chloride are “medically interchangeable.” But he said he asked Fallin to call off the execution because of the uncertainty regarding the drug.
The two different types of potassium appear to be equal, said David Gortler, an associate professor of pharmacology at Yale University and a drug safety expert.
“Potassium is potassium,” Gortler said. “The pharmacology isn’t that much different between the different salts.”
Opponents of Oklahoma’s death penalty called Thursday for more information about what happened. Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School and prominent critic of the death penalty, said the Justice Department should investigate the situation.
Dale Baich, an attorney for Glossip and Warner, vowed to pursue the matter through the courts.
“We cannot trust Oklahoma to get it right or to tell the truth,” Baich said in a statement. He said Oklahoma’s acknowledgment that it may have used the wrong drug “yet again raises serious questions about the ability of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to carry out executions.”
Connie Johnson, chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said in a statement that news about the potassium acetate “reinforces our efforts and renews our determination to continue to educate Oklahomans about the many things that are wrong with the death penalty.”
Fallin said her office supports Pruitt’s investigation and added that she hopes it will “make sure justice is served competently and fairly.”
“Until we have complete confidence in the system, we will delay any further executions,” she said Thursday.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections declined to comment Thursday while the investigation is ongoing.
“As you are aware the Attorney General’s office has opened an inquiry,” Patton said in an e-mailed statement Thursday. “Out of respect for that inquiry we will not making any comment at this time.”
Warner’s autopsy report states that his probable cause of death was “judicial execution by lethal injection.” In January, he became the first — and, so far, only — inmate executed using the state’s new protocol. Media witnesses reported that Warner did not show any signs of distress during the execution, but the Associated Press reported that after the midazolam was administered, he said, “My body is on fire.”
The following week, the Supreme Court said it would hear the challenge to Oklahoma’s protocol, a case that largely focused on the sedative midazolam, which was also used in the two other problematic executions last year. An Arizona execution lasted for nearly two hours as the inmate gasped and snorted before dying, while an Ohio execution lasted for nearly 25 minutes as the inmate appeared to gasp and choke. Ohio now says it will no longer use midazolam. (Florida has also used midazolam repeatedly without witnesses reporting these kinds of issues.)
Most lethal injections in the country had, until very recently, been carried out using a three-drug combination. But states have been scrambling amid the drug shortage, shifting lethal-injection protocols again and again. Some states have been using a single drug, including the two most active death penalty states since 2013, Texas and Missouri, both of which use only the anesthetic pentobarbital. (Here is a guide to the drugs being used across the country.)
The justices used the Oklahoma case, which bore Glossip’s name, as a forum to debate the overall issue of capital punishment. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a lengthy dissent questioning whether the death penalty was constitutional. Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, dismissed this as “gobbledy-gook.”
That day, his scheduled execution time came and went, but Fallin eventually issued an unexpected stay to allow the state to make sure it was “complying fully with the protocols approved by federal courts.” His execution is now on hold indefinitely.
This post has been updated.