TULSA, Okla. – Oklahoma has no plans to review its lethal injection protocol even though two inmates executed this month complained as the drugs began to flow through their bodies.
Michael Lee Wilson, who was executed Jan. 9, said he felt his "whole body burning" within 20 seconds of receiving the injection. Kenneth Eugene Hogan, who was executed Thursday, complained of a metallic taste in his mouth seconds after his injection.
In September, death row inmate Anthony Rozelle Banks took several deep breaths as the lethal drugs were injected into his body, then appeared to grimace briefly before he stopped breathing and his body went limp.
Wilson and Hogan's complaints have some civil liberties groups decrying the drugs used in Oklahoma's lethal injections — particularly pentobarbital, a sedative commonly used to euthanize animals that is supposed to render a condemned inmate unconscious. The pentobarbital is followed by vecuronium bromide, which stops the inmate's breathing, then potassium chloride to stop the heart.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections said it will not initiate a review of the state's execution protocol, and a spokeswoman for Attorney General Scott Pruitt said Oklahoma's execution method is "in compliance with the law."
"Our protocol was appropriate, and we have no plans to change it," DOC spokesman Jerry Massie said. "There had been nothing over the last several weeks that has done anything to change our opinion of that."
Oklahoma has used this three-drug protocol since 2010, when convicted inmate John David Duty was believed to be the first person in the U.S. whose execution included the use of pentobarbital. Before switching sedatives, Oklahoma and several other states had relied on the barbiturate sodium thiopental to put an inmate to sleep, but shortages of that drug caused states to look for alternatives.
One such state was Ohio, where on Jan. 16, inmate Dennis McGuire took 26 minutes to die after officials used an untested combination of a sedative and a painkiller.
Most of the 17 executions in Oklahoma using pentobarbital have been performed with no physical signs of discomfort or complaints as the drugs were injected. Massie said the comments made by Wilson and Hogan "are somewhat normal reactions," and that it didn't appear the men were in any kind of distress after they made the comments.
Massie also said that because the McGuire execution, more people have become sensitive to the issue, including inmates and their defense attorneys.
Oklahoma is not facing similar problems of states that are dealing with shortages of execution drugs or upcoming expiration dates, he said, declining to comment on where the state gets its execution drugs, saying the matter was "confidential."
Oklahoma's execution methods have been lambasted by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, which called on the corrections department for a review.
"I think it's a no-brainer that you review it when you see something unexpected happen in the execution process," said Brady Henderson, legal director of the ACLU's Oklahoma chapter. "The fact is, if you look at how executions are done, our position is there has never been a truly humane process.
"What we're talking about here is states effectively almost experimenting on people with different cocktails of drugs, different means, supply problems," he said.
Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said he expects more court challenges of how states carry out lethal injections.
"(Executions) used to be quiet and we wouldn't witness anything and they'd pronounce death," he said. "Now there's a rumbling of more going on, and you could be watching some of your own death if you're semi-conscious. It is a little bit of a messier future."