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Oklahoma Officials Told Of Execution Drug Mix-Up Months Earlier Than Previously Known

The Department of Corrections had reason to know it used the wrong drug in one execution in 2015 well before it obtained — and almost used — the same wrong drug for another execution later that same year.

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The Oklahoma Department of Corrections almost used the wrong drug in an execution scheduled for September 2015 — more than six months after it was informed it had done the same thing in an execution it carried out earlier that year.

The state medical examiner’s office provided the corrections department with Charles Warner’s autopsy in April 2015, BuzzFeed News has learned, giving the department clear evidence it had used the wrong drug in Warner’s January execution. Despite that, the state once again obtained the wrong drug in September for the planned execution of Richard Glossip. The mistake was caught at the last minute by the doctor overseeing the scheduled execution.

BuzzFeed News discovered this, and several other key facts not previously made public in the 15 months since Oklahoma executed Charles Warner on Jan. 15, 2015, through a review of state emails obtained this week.

The grand jury, which has been investigating the subject behind closed doors since this past October, is meeting again currently and could release a report as soon as this week.

Since the grand jury investigation began more than six months ago, no information has been provided about the specifics of the investigation.

In January 2015, Oklahoma executed Charles Warner for raping and murdering an 11-month-old child in 1997. The state was supposed to inject him with potassium chloride, but instead injected him with potassium acetate, according to the autopsy report. Among Warner’s last words were “My body is on fire.”

In late September, the state intended to execute Richard Glossip for arranging the murder of his boss, but had to call the execution off at the last minute after discovering officials had received the wrong drug. Executioners “briefly considered” using the wrong drug again.

While the grand jury has been investigating the state’s execution process, three individuals have resigned. The head of the Department of Corrections, Robert Patton, who presided over three botched execution attempts, announced his resignation in December. Anita Trammell, the warden at the prisons where the executions took place, also resigned, as well as Gov. Mary Fallin’s general counsel, Steve Mullins.

The emails provided to BuzzFeed News this week came in response to a public records request made this past fall and provide a first glimpse into several of the issues that could be a part of the ongoing grand jury investigation.

The documents show that the Department of Corrections received Charles Warner’s autopsy report — showing the wrong drug had been used — in April, months before the mistake was disclosed to the public, attorneys for other death row inmates, and the courts.

A nursing manager in the corrections department requested the autopsy Jan. 26, 2015, a couple weeks after Warner was executed, and received the autopsy April 1. BuzzFeed News requested the autopsy in June, but did not receive it until October — after the Department of Corrections had nearly used the wrong drug again.

When asked about the autopsy report, the Department of Corrections said it was looking into the matter.

The department attempted to carry out Glossip’s execution in late September, but called it off after it once again received the wrong drug, potassium acetate. Days later, the state released Warner’s autopsy showing the potassium acetate actually was used in his execution. The emails obtained by BuzzFeed News this week provide the first evidence that the corrections department had been informed months earlier that the wrong drug had been used in Warner’s execution.

After the Glossip execution was called off — but before Warner’s autopsy was made public — Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt announced the multi-county grand jury his office oversees would be investigating the mistakes the state made in carrying out executions.

The documents, however, imply that the attorney general’s office may have been aware of the Warner execution drug mix-up weeks before the scheduled Glossip execution.

In August, attorneys in Pruitt’s office asked for a log of all physical evidence in Warner’s execution.

“I received a weird request” from the attorney general’s office, a medical examiner employee wrote in an email in early September. “Do we have any extra vials of drugs (?) that may have been sent with executed inmate, Charles Warner?”

Several emails between officials in the medical examiner’s office then followed, in which they discussed an attached list of what items were sent with Warner. This email chain, along with an attachment of evidence, was then forwarded to the attorney from Pruitt’s office on September 2.

The medical examiner’s office told BuzzFeed News that the attachment was part of Warner’s case file, and would take a court order for them to release it to the public.

The attorney general’s office declined to comment while the grand jury is continuing its investigation.

Once the drug mistake was made public in October, the documents also show the attorney general’s office was interested in receiving more information about the drugs used on Warner in his execution.

An agent with the attorney general’s office asked the medical examiner’s office if they still had Warner’s blood samples.

“We anticipate having to test Charles Warner’s blood for the chemicals contained therein… and also test any remaining chemicals left in the vials and syringes for identification,” chief agent Terry Cronkite wrote in an email.

The chief forensic toxicologist responded that his blood was not tested for levels of potassium acetate (the drug that was mistakenly used), and that now, months later, testing might not be helpful.

In addition, the vials and syringes were not tested at the time of Warner’s execution, the toxicologist said, and added that it is “unclear” if the unused drugs would be stable enough to be tested. “They may be,” he said.

Nearly two months after the grand jury investigation was announced, the documents reveal that questions remained about whether the attorney general’s office had been given access to potentially relevant evidence.

In one email, a Department of Corrections inspector general agent wrote to a medical examiner investigator on Nov. 25, asking about evidence in the Warner execution.

“Had a quick question regarding Charles Warner: The AG's Office is conducting an investigation into the execution of Charles Warner and I was advised they had made arrangements to retrieve all the evidence associated with the case,” chief agent Carl Wilks wrote. “Can you tell me what the evidence is, and whether or not the AG has been advised of the evidence?”

The medical examiner employee responded that same day with three pages of evidence, writing, “As far as I know, the AG's office is not aware of this evidence.”

The medical examiner’s office said they could not turn over the evidence list to BuzzFeed News without a court order. The attorney general’s office declined to comment on the exchange, and the department of corrections said it was looking into the issue.

Read the documents:


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

Contact Chris McDaniel at chris.mcdaniel@buzzfeed.com.

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