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What an Oklahoma Ruling Could Mean for the Death Penalty in the U.S.

What an Oklahoma Ruling Could Mean for the Death Penalty in the U.S.

In a case that could have far-reaching effects for several U.S. states that continue to practice the death penalty, Oklahoma County district court Judge Patricia Parrish struck down a secrecy provision that conceals the sources of the state’s execution drugs. She argued that the provision violated the rights articulated under the state constitution, creating a clear legal precedent for states with similar laws. While she didn’t take on the death penalty itself, she did strike a resounding blow against the mechanics of the state’s death penalty, making it that much more difficult to execute people.

The issue came before the court through a suit from two inmates, Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, both due to be executed in April. The men argued that they had a right to know the source of the drugs used in their executions, given the gruesome death of inmate Dennis McGuire in Ohio earlier this year. McGuire reportedly gasped and showed obvious signs of distress during his execution, indicating that something had gone wrong with the protocol, or that the drugs used contained impurities.

This is a growing concern as a number of drug manufacturers refuse to supply drugs to the prison system for use in executions. European companies argue that they’re uncomfortable with the use of their medications given that their home nations don’t have the death penalty, while others have either moral or safety concerns; some claim they’ve been subject to threats, pressure and public abuse for selling drugs to the prison system. Consequently, inmates are growing concerned about where execution drugs are coming from, and whether they’re both pure and safe to use. To make things worse, many doctors and anesthesiologists are refusing to participate in executions, meaning that they are conducted by inadequately trained personnel who can’t identify the signs of medical distress and may be botching the executions they perform.

Several states, like Oklahoma, ban the disclosure of information about their drug sources, including in court. Judge Parrish determined that this was a violation of the state’s constitution, as it created a “veil of secrecy” surrounding the execution process. Her decision to strike down that provision of the law didn’t alter the men’s death sentences, but it did send a clear message to the state that it needs to be transparent about the source of its execution drugs. It’s a message that will undoubtedly spread to inmates in other states looking to challenge the structure of execution laws and the criminal justice system, as the argument could be used to question existing privacy protections in other states.

It could also contribute to the ongoing fight against the death penalty in the United States. The decreasing supply of execution drugs is already making it harder for states to plan executions, and without privacy protections, more companies are likely to refuse to supply drugs. This may make it functionally impossible to perform lethal injections, and it could be yet another nail in the coffin of the death penalty. That’s good news for death penalty opponents, who are always seeking new angles and arguments to end the practice forever in the United States and beyond.

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Photo credit: Ken Piorkowski.

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95 comments

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1:21PM PDT on Jun 18, 2014

Did they give their victims a choice?

6:50PM PDT on Apr 4, 2014

Thanks, Kevin. Haven't seen too many of us on the site. Always an honor to receive recognition from a colleague.

5:39PM PDT on Apr 4, 2014

Jordan G., from one lawyer to another, well said!

5:12PM PDT on Apr 4, 2014

I'm an attorney and I am unalterably against the death penalty. I've seen the system from the inside out and you can not imagine the full depth of the ignorance of even the best people and the corruption of the worst.

Really, you can't.

Some other reasons:
1. I know that in a moment of anger I would want to pull the switch myself and so I know that I want to be protected against my own baser nature.
2. l shouldn't be a coward and ask someone to do something I wouldn't do myself.
3. I don't want the State to have the right to kill people.
4. It is ethically repugnant.
5. It's more expensive than life in prison.
6. It's irreversible and we've seen too many mistakes and close calls.
7. Legal thinking and application is 50 years behind medical knowledge, and medicine is 20 years behind itself in terms of the information it provides to the legal community.
8. Often the diagnosis is wrong.
9. Eyewitness testimony and memory testimony are notoriously unreliable.
10. Revenge testimony is everywhere.
11. Jailhouse snitches will do or say anything to make a deal.
12. If it were so obviously "correct" no one would be against it.
13. Today's garbage hypotheses are tomorrow's proofs ... and vice versa -- and that's the scarier part.

1:28PM PDT on Apr 3, 2014

Personally lethal injection (admittedly done right) sounds better than the guillotine or a firing squad. Have we gained anything when we eliminate what could/should be the most humane option?

For those who say the death penalty serves no purpose, I would like them to know that in the state of Kansas we have had a number of criminals (including the notorious BTK murderer) plea bargain for life in prison in order to avoid the death penalty. This saves the tax payers lots of money but more importantly saves the families/witnesses/victims the anguish of giving testimony and reliving the crime during a long trial.

12:56PM PDT on Apr 3, 2014

Thank you.

7:15PM PDT on Apr 2, 2014

thanks

5:14PM PDT on Apr 2, 2014

Thanks for the post.

2:00PM PDT on Apr 2, 2014

noted

6:33AM PDT on Apr 2, 2014

Why waste money and time on drugs? Just drop 'em in the drink for fish food.

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