A grand jury investigation into Oklahoma's execution mistakes during 2015 found that the department of corrections and others in the process "failed to perform their duties" with the care and attention required when attempting to carry out capital punishment.
"This investigation has revealed that most Department [of Corrections] employees profoundly misunderstood the [Execution] Protocol," the grand jury report concluded in detailing one of its findings. "Although some ... were able to intelligently testify regarding the Protocol, the majority simply could not."
The grand jury began investigating Oklahoma’s execution methods in October 2015, after the state called off the scheduled execution of Richard Glossip due to obtaining the wrong drug. Shortly thereafter, it was disclosed that the state had used the incorrect drug in the execution of Charles Warner earlier that year, in January.
"People of the state of Oklahoma are sick and tired of being ridiculed nationally and internationally about" 2014's botched execution, Oklahoma County Judge Donald Deason said from the bench of the earlier execution of Clayton Lockett that went awry. He said the public needs to know "that somebody has looked into the monkey business that has been going on at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections."
Since the grand jury began investigating, a decision made by Attorney General Scott Pruitt, three state officials resigned: Warden Anita Trammell, who oversaw the prison where executions take place; the head of the Department of Corrections, Robert Patton; and Gov. Mary Fallin’s general counsel, Steve Mullins.
All three officials were implicated in the report, but no indictments or other specific actions were taken against them or anyone else involved in the process. The grand jury recommended that the state revise its execution protocol again — a step taken after the botched Lockett execution as well. The grand jury also recommended that those involved in the execution process "must be thoroughly trained" on the protocol and that the state appoint an independent ombudsman to be on-site during executions.
In a statement, Pruitt — whose office was shown in the report to have challenged Gov. Mary Fallin's office when her lawyer urged that the Glossip execution proceed despite the state having obtained the wrong drug — validated the grand jury's findings.
"A number of individuals responsible for carrying out the execution process were careless, cavalier and in some circumstances dismissive of established procedures that were intended to guard against the very mistakes that occurred," Pruitt said.
Fallin, on the other hand, was looking ahead, saying in a statement, "With new management at the Department of Corrections, led by Interim Director Joe Allbaugh, I am confident we can move forward with a process that complies with the applicable policies, protocols and legal requirements."
Highlighted findings of the report reflect criticism of all three of the high-profile departures in the governor's office and department of corrections:
The report was perhaps most critical of Fallin's then-counsel, Mullins, who encouraged the department of corrections to go forward with Glossip's scheduled execution even after the department discovered it had obtained potassium acetate and not potassium chloride, as was required in the state's execution protocol.
"It is unacceptable for the Governor's General Counsel to so flippantly and recklessly disregard the written Protocol and the rights of Richard Glossip," the grand jury report concluded. "Given the gravity of the death penalty, as well as the national scrutiny following the Lockett execution, the Governor's Counsel should have been unwilling to take such chances. Regardless of the fact the wrong drug was used to execute Warner, the Governor's Counsel should have resoundingly recommended an immediate stay of execution to allow time to locate potassium chloride."
While the grand jury investigated, BuzzFeed News discovered that the department of corrections was informed it had used the wrong drug in April 2015 — months before it was made public, and months before it obtained, and nearly used, the wrong drug in the scheduled Glossip execution.
Patton attempted to carry out three executions during his short tenure in Oklahoma. Each time, there was a major screw-up. BuzzFeed News reported that many errors Patton made in Oklahoma were similar to ones made during his time at his previous job in Arizona.
After the grand jury began, the department and the governor's office hired two high-power outside lawyers to represent them. One of the attorneys attempted to quash subpoenas in the investigation, but that request was denied.
Emails sent by an internal affairs agent who worked with Patton speculated that he may have been "forced out" as a "fall" guy for execution mistakes. “The pharmacist is the one who substituted the drug without telling us,” agent Stephanie Burk wrote in an email obtained by BuzzFeed News.
“The doctor should have caught it too before it was used on Warner. He/she caught it before it was used on Glossip, which started this latest mess. He/she felt so bad and apologized profusely. But someone had to take the fall and you can’t fire the pharmacist or the doctor, so…"
The full grand jury report:
Chris McDaniel is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. His secure PGP fingerprint is C90B B2EF E872 EF22 4EDA DABB 50E6 F2BE 1164 FCAF
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Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
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