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Oklahoma executes first inmate in 6 years after Supreme Court clears the way

John Marion Grant's lethal injection Thursday was the first in the state in over six years following a series of bungled executions.

In a last-minute decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday vacated a stay of execution for John Marion Grant, clearing the way for his execution hours later at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Grant’s execution was stayed Wednesday by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the appeals court in a 5-3 vote. Justice Neil Gorsuch recused himself, as he presided over Grant’s case during his tenure as a 10th Circuit judge.

His was executed at 4:21 p.m. after convulsing two dozen times and vomiting, witnesses said. It was the first in Oklahoma, one of the country’s leading death penalty states, in over six years. The return to lethal injections in the state where the method was created follows a series of bungled and gruesome executions in 2014 and 2015.

The next person scheduled for execution is Julius Jones, whose case and claims of innocence have caught national attention. Jones’s execution was also stayed by the 10th Circuit, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday also allows the state to proceed with his death sentence.

He is scheduled for death by lethal injection on Nov. 18 and has a clemency hearing before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on Monday.

The federal public defender for both men, Dale Baich, said moving forward with the executions could cause "an unconstitutional risk of excessive pain and suffering."

“Executions will go forward in Oklahoma despite significant questions regarding the constitutionality of the state’s execution protocol," he said in a statement. "The district court ordered a trial to determine whether the protocol creates an unconstitutional risk of excessive pain and suffering, yet the Supreme Court will allow Oklahoma to execute Mr. Grant with that protocol.”

Oklahoma used a drug mixture not authorized under state protocol to kill Charles Frederick Warner in 2015. His death was just the latest in a string of executions condemned in the U.S. and internationally, from the president to the U.N. human rights chief. Just a few months prior, the execution of Richard Eugene Glossip was halted for a second time, with just hours remaining, after the wrong drug mixture was delivered to the prison.

The year before that, Clayton Derrell Lockett took 43 minutes to die when the wrong needle was used to administer a lethal injection, causing the drug to pool in his muscle tissue. Media witnesses were escorted out of the death chamber minutes after Lockett regained consciousness on the gurney. An autopsy found he died of a heart attack. “What happened in Oklahoma is deeply troubling,” President Barack Obama said at a news conference a few weeks later.

Following a 2015 state court ruling that Oklahoma should re-evaluate its death penalty protocols, then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt called for a moratorium on executions until new procedures were written and the necessary drugs could be purchased.

The Oklahoma attorney general’s office has characterized in court the search for execution drugs as “herculean,” and state officials worked for years on an alternative plan to become the first state to use nitrogen gas to execute someone, though Oklahoma is not doing so yet.

Execution drugs have become increasingly difficult for states to find over the last decade, as the companies that manufacture them have denounced their use in lethal injections. States often look to compounding pharmacies — which make drugs for patients with specific needs, like creating a liquid form of a common pill for a patient who can’t swallow solid objects — to recreate the drugs of choice.

A former director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Joe Allbaugh, who took over that position shortly after the moratorium went into effect, said that what Oklahoma learned the hard way is that relying on smaller pharmacies can often mean less quality control.

Allbaugh said he often had concerns about the chain of custody or that the drugs could be contaminated. “How do I know what I can get is actually going to be what I need?” he said.

Allbaugh, who left the department in 2019, said prison administrators and staff have worked for several years to upgrade the death chamber and train for the moment when the necessary drugs have been acquired. “I am hopeful and prayerful that they will have a successful event.”

The state’s death chamber was overhauled in 2014, shortly after Lockett’s execution, to improve the equipment in the room where medical personnel administer the lethal doses. The department also removed seven of the 12 seats for media witnesses.

For Grant’s execution Thursday, Oklahoma will use the same three-drug mixture it did in Lockett’s execution — midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride — and officials have not divulged where the state acquired the lethal doses. State law prohibits officials from revealing the source of execution drugs or the identities of the staff members involved. Grant’s execution will be the first of seven the state has scheduled over the next several months.

Maria Kolar, an assistant professor of law at Oklahoma City University who also sat on the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, said the state’s push to resume executions while a federal case on the constitutionality of the method is underway is reminiscent of the problems with Lockett’s execution.

“This time reminds me of the last time, the attitude of, ‘You can’t stop us, we’re going ahead,’” Kolar said. “Even if they’re not made to wait, the state should wait and respect the process.”

Grant was serving what amounts to a life sentence on multiple robbery charges when he killed Gay Carter. Grant was working in the prison cafeteria, where Carter supervised a group of men incarcerated at the facility, but after he got into a fight with another inmate, Carter removed him from his position. Witnesses testified that Grant became enraged and dragged Carter into a mop closet, where he stabbed her more than a dozen times with a makeshift knife.

Pam Carter worked with her mother at the prison, she wrote in a victim’s impact statement read during the trial. She said she had hoped to make a career at the prison as a records officer, but after her mother’s murder she could no longer eat at or even walk past the cafeteria. “It’s been more than a year since mom’s death and I am unsure if I can continue to handle the constant reminders that are everywhere,” she wrote.

During prosecution, Osage County District Attorney Larry Stuart said that seeking the death penalty was the only way to assure that Grant could not kill or harm someone else again.

Janice Boies, who served on the jury in Grant’s 2000 trial, agreed. “What I could not get past, and I said this to every one of the other jurors,” she said this week, “if we put him back in prison, what would keep him from doing it again?”

Citing her faith as a Jehovah’s Witness, Boies said she was not generally in favor of the death penalty, but she felt that in Grant’s case it is warranted. She is aware of the problems the state has had in performing executions, but she expects that the department of corrections and the attorney general’s office have taken the necessary steps to correct their mistakes.

“That is the state’s business, and the state’s conscience,” she said, “and if they mess up, it’s on them.”