Oklahoma has changed the way it administers fatal drugs during executions amid three court challenges to the process.
Under the revised procedure, a death row inmate will receive a larger dose of anesthesia before the drug that stops the inmate’s heart is administered.
Richard Kirby, the general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said the changes were the result of recommendations by an expert who testified during a recent challenge by a death row inmate.
Dr. Mark Dershwitz, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, suggested changing the procedure that had been in place since 2005 because there was no reason to administer the prescribed drugs and then repeat them in reverse order.
The old process called for inmates to receive a second dose of the sedative thiopental after two injections of sodium chloride already had caused their heart to stop.
Now, an inmate will be injected with a double dose of the sedative at the beginning. Dershwitz said that change would further reduce the chance that a condemned inmate would wake up after the sedative has been administered, providing sufficient time for the lethal drugs to take effect. He also commended Oklahoma’s practice of using two intravenous lines because it provides a backup in case one line fails.
James Patrick Malicoat, who was convicted of murdering his 13-month-old daughter in 1997 in Chickasha, is scheduled to be executed Tuesday. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Malicoat’s challenge to the execution procedure in June.
At least three inmates have challenged Oklahoma’s execution procedure in federal court, claiming it violates their 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
Dershwitz was hired by state officials as they prepared for an Aug. 8 hearing on a lawsuit by death row inmate Eric Allen Patton. In that hearing, U.S. District Judge Stephen P. Friot denied a request to put off Patton’s scheduled Aug. 29 execution, noting two experts hired by his attorneys agreed 2,400 milligrams of thiopental is sufficient to sedate inmates before they are executed. Patton’s attorneys have appealed the decision to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A similar lawsuit filed by two other death row inmates is scheduled for trial in April 2007. In June, a federal judge stopped executions in Missouri until the state could change its procedures to ensure that prisoners are not subject to unconstitutional pain and suffering.
Oklahoma law calls for condemned inmates to be injected with a lethal quantity of an ultra-short acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic agent until they are pronounced dead. Details are left up to the Corrections Department.
Kirby said the warden at Oklahoma State Penitentiary, where inmates are executed, is responsible for the procedure, with input from other department officials. Medical professionals are consulted when needed.
Oklahoma was the first state to choose lethal injection to execute condemned inmates. A total of 37 states use some version lethal injection. Nebraska uses electrocution in its executions.