AP Photo / Sue Ogrocki

Oklahoma halts all executions after lethal injection drug shipment mix-up

State officials refuse to name company that sent wrong drug hours before scheduled execution of Richard Glossip

Oklahoma’s top criminal court agreed Friday to stop all executions indefinitely after confusion over a lethal injection drug shipment led to a stay for an execution, although officials maintained their refusal to divulge the identity of the state’s lethal drug provider.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin on Wednesday issued a last-minute order delaying the execution of Richard Glossip, whose case has garnered international attention, after the state’s Corrections Department received potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride from a pharmaceutical provider. The shipment of the wrong drug arrived just hours beforehand.

The state’s Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday accepted Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s request for a stay of three executions set for the next two months while authorities investigate the matter. His office declined to identify the pharmaceutical company that sent the drug, saying that Oklahoma law protects the company’s identity for its safety.

State officials said the shipment of potassium acetate — instead of the potassium chloride mandated in Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol — was not a mistake, although they acknowledged that the drug was outside their protocol.

“I don’t think it was a mistake, because we were told potassium acetate is medically interchangeable with potassium chloride,” Corrections Department spokesman Alex Gerszewski told Al Jazeera.

Glossip’s attorney, Don Knight, disputed that claim, saying, “The truth is [state officials] didn’t know what would happen if they pumped potassium acetate and not potassium chloride.” 

“The spin they’re putting on it doesn’t change the clear mistakes that were made,” he said. “There was protocol violated. By whom and when were they made? Those are clear questions, and I don’t — and no one should — trust [the state’s] answers.”

Despite those concerns, authorities refused to name the drug company involved.

“Because of threats providers have received in the past, Oklahoma law protects the confidentiality of the state’s drug provider,” the attorney general’s spokesman Aaron Cooper told Al Jazeera, citing a “confidentiality provision” that effectively conceals the identity of all people involved in administering the execution, including the drug providers.

He did not respond to further questions regarding the nature or source of the threats. Oklahoma is one of many states, including Texas and Louisiana, with laws protecting the identities of lethal injection drug providers.

Death penalty opponents say the alleged threats against drug providers are an attempt to avoid discussion of the circumstances leading to the stay on executions.

“The idea that they were threatened has been blown way out proportion,” said Adam Leathers, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “It’s an attempt for death penalty advocates to color abolitionists as violent and debase our reputation.”

“If it weren’t for Clayton Lockett, they may have just gone ahead with the execution,” Leathers said, referring to another Oklahoma inmate, whose botched execution on April 29, 2014 — in which he is reported to have writhed in pain — led to intense scrutiny of lethal injection protocols across the United States. 

Knight called on the public to “stay focused on what actually happened” in the days leading up to Glossip’s scheduled execution. “It looks like somebody or more than one person really screwed up in a case watched by the entire world.”

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