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Despite preparations, drug mix-up derails Oklahoma executions, casts doubt on protocols


OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite more than a year of painstaking training and preparation to ensure that executions in Oklahoma were performed without a hitch, the state's latest attempt to lethally inject an inmate was thwarted by a last-minute glitch — the wrong drugs were delivered to the prison.

It prompted the attorney general in this Republican-heavy state to call for all lethal injections to stop.

"Until my office knows more about these circumstances and gains confidence that (the Department of Corrections) can carry out executions in accordance with the execution protocol, I am asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to issue an indefinite stay of all scheduled executions," Attorney General Scott Pruitt said in a statement.

Pruitt's request was granted Friday, indefinitely staying the scheduled executions of three inmates, including Richard Glossip, who has been spared three times since his original execution date last year.

"I'm just standing there in just my boxers," Glossip told reporters Wednesday, explaining that he'd been stripped to his boxers and was in a holding cell near the death chamber. "They wouldn't tell me anything. ... It was the roughest two hours I've had since I've been locked up."

The latest troubles have death penalty opponents looking to the state to explain exactly how such a mistake could be made and even reconsider capital punishment entirely. Oklahoma corrections officials maintained all lethal injection protocols were followed this week, but that the state received potassium acetate instead of the required potassium chloride, one of the three drugs used in executions.

Those protocols were completely overhauled after the April 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett, who writhed on the gurney and struggled against his restraints before being declared dead more than 40 minutes after the procedure began. An investigation later determined the execution team didn't have the proper equipment and that an intravenous line in Lockett's groin was improperly set, resulting in the drugs being injected into his tissue instead of into his bloodstream.

There remains some dispute over whether delivering the drugs to the prison on the day of the execution violates protocols, which require the death row section chief to "confirm all equipment necessary to properly conduct the procedure is on site" once the execution date is set. The chief also is required at that time to keep the chemicals under his director control "in a secured, locked area."

Pruitt said in court filings that he "needs time to evaluate the events that transpired on Sept. 30, 2015, ODOC's acquisition of a drug contrary to protocol, and ODOC's internal procedures relative to the protocol."

Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said Thursday that the section chief had direct control of the drugs once they were delivered to the prison on Wednesday. Patton also said the drugs are delivered on the day of the execution because the prison does not have the proper license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to store the chemicals overnight.

"We get them approximately two hours before the execution," Patton said.

Dale Baich, a federal public defender who has been working on a legal challenge to the state's lethal injection protocol for more than a year, said he believes the protocols were not followed. Baich blames the state's secrecy laws that prevent disclosure of how the lethal drugs are obtained.

"I think that the Department of Corrections is trying to rewrite history," Baich said. "They would have to now say execution inventory does not mean drugs, but that's not consistent with other parts of the protocol."

This week's events have given more momentum to opponents of the death penalty, who have rallied around Glossip's case because of his claims of innocence and the involvement of Sister Helen Prejean, who was the subject of the Academy Award winning film "Dead Man Walking."

State government wasn't doing much "to foster a sense of confidence that it can conduct an execution without botching it," said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma.

"If Oklahomans had any doubt that their government can competently exercise its greatest authority over human life," he said, "then those doubts should be magnified tenfold."

Follow Sean Murphy at http://www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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