Oklahoma used a lethal injection drug outside its protocol when it executed inmate Charles Warner in January amid ongoing controversy over a lack of transparency over the state’s drug providers and practices, according to an autopsy report obtained by Al Jazeera.
The news comes amid a stay on all executions in the state after the Oklahoma Corrections Department revealed it received the wrong lethal drug before the planned execution of Richard Glossip, whose execution was halted on Sept. 30 at the last minute. His case has garnered international attention and Pope Francis’ request for a commuted sentence.
Executioners used potassium acetate instead of the mandated potassium chloride to kill Warner on Jan. 16, the autopsy released by the Oklahoma Chief Medical Examiner’s Office shows.
The autopsy says that although the syringes used in Warner’s execution were labeled “potassium chloride,” the vials used with those syringes contained potassium acetate.
Oklahoma authorities say an ongoing investigation will determine whether the two drugs are interchangeable, even if potassium acetate is not currently mandated under its protocol.
Corrections Department spokesman Alex Gerszewski told Al Jazeera that the department had not yet seen the autopsy but that it would be “tough” to offer further comment because of the investigation into Oklahoma’s capital punishment procedure.
The state’s Court of Criminal Appeals on Oct. 2 accepted Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s request for an indefinite stay of three executions set for the next two months while authorities investigate why the chemical provider — which state authorities have declined to reveal — supplied them with potassium acetate instead of the potassium chloride allowed by state law.
Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure has long been under question. In March, Akorn Pharmaceuticals said, in a letter addressed to Pruitt that was obtained by Al Jazeera, that its products “may have been used by some correctional facilities in the United States” and that the company “strongly objects to the use of its products in capital punishment.” The company, which asked that any of its drugs purchased for execution purposes be returned, has not responded to requests for further comment on its steps to keep its products out of the hands of executioners.
One of the drugs the company hoped to keep from U.S. corrections departments was midazolam, the lethal injection drug contested in the Supreme Court case Glossip v. Gross. In that case, which the justices dismissed on June 29, Glossip’s attorneys argued that the midazolam used in the botched execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29, 2014, caused him unnecessary pain that amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
Death penalty opponents heralded the news of potassium acetate’s use in the Warner execution as a singular instance of transparency in a death penalty system shrouded in secrecy, particularly by an Oklahoma law preventing the revelation of information on executioners and drug providers.
The news is “going to make a difference, because they violated their protocols,” said Glossip’s friend Kim Van Atta, adding that this would prolong an investigation while Glossip’s legal team argues for authorities to consider new evidence that may exonerate him. “We’ve got time.”
The Rev. Adam Leathers, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said in a statement that the mix-up underlined the problems with capital punishment.
“Nothing as evil, expensive and so horrendously flawed as the death penalty should be allowed to exist,” he said.