OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma inmate executed amid a legal challenge over lethal injection began complaining about the effects on his body before the drugs were administered, prompting some to question whether he may have exaggerated his symptoms to help his fellow death row inmates' case.
Charles Warner, who was executed Thursday for the killing of an 11-month-old girl in 1997, said during his last words: "It feels like acid." The comment came before any of the lethal drugs were administered and while he was only receiving a saline drip through an intravenous line.
While on the gurney, he also said he'd been "poked" five times.
Warner's attorney who witnessed his execution, Madeline Cohen, said since she wasn't able to view the IV insertion, she asked Warner to tell her how many times the execution team tried to insert the line and whether he was experiencing any problems.
Cohen said she and Warner's family members found Warner's comments "disturbing" and "confusing."
After the first drug, a sedative, was administered, Warner again complained: "My body is on fire."
Cohen said she doesn't believe Warner would have exaggerated symptoms of suffering, and that defense lawyers would never coach death row inmates about what to say during their last words. She agreed with other witnesses who said Warner showed no other physical signs of distress, such as moaning, writhing or lifting against the restraints, but she said there's really no way to tell if he was suffering.
"I just don't know. We have tried to get transparency about what they're doing and to be able to observe (the IV insertion)," Cohen said of prison officials. "And we've been denied that. So between the actual veiling and the chemical veiling, it's very hard for us to know what's going on."
But some criminal prosecutors suggested death row inmates would be quick to exaggerate the symptoms of an execution, especially if doing so would be helpful to fellow death row inmates.
"I think what you witnessed is predictable, especially if it could be helpful to the guys behind him," said Rex Duncan, a northern Oklahoma prosecutor who recently protested a death row inmate's request for clemency.
Randy Lopez, a retired prison guard who spent his entire career at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, said there is a brotherhood among death row inmates and that he thinks Warner was "hamming it up."
"He did it for the other inmates," Lopez said.
Neither Duncan nor Lopez witnessed Warner's execution.
Warner and other death row inmates were plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Oklahoma's method of execution as cruel and unusual. They claimed the first drug, midazolam, won't properly anesthetize an inmate before the second and third drugs are administered. Although the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Warner's request for a stay of execution in a narrow 5-4 ruling on Thursday, the inmates' request for the high court to consider the merit of their challenge still is pending, according to Dale Baich, an attorney for the inmates.
Writing the dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she believes questions about the effectiveness of drugs used in executions is particularly important now because of states' increasing reliance on new and scientifically untested methods of execution.
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