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Oklahoma judges reverse execution decision after political pressure

Published time: April 25, 2014 00:23
AFP Photo / Erik S. Lesser

AFP Photo / Erik S. Lesser

Lawmakers in the state of Oklahoma have launched a campaign to oust state judges who suspended the executions of two prisoners, ruling for the first time that they had the right to know what was in the drug cocktail that would be used to kill them.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay of execution Monday for Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, two convicted killers. In a 5-4 decision the justices challenged the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s policy that permits state authorities to keep the ingredients of the drug used to carry out lethal injections secret.

A day after Oklahoma’s Republican Governor May Fallin criticized the court, the justices dissolved their own ruling, pulling back its assertion that death row inmates have the right to know what will kill them.

Exactly why the court would reverse its own decision two days later was not immediately clear. Some speculated that the justices determined the case should ultimately be decided by the Criminal Court of Appeals, which rejected hearing the case multiple times.

Law enforcement officials throughout the US have declared that keeping information regarding execution chemicals under wraps is essential to protect the pharmacies that supply the drugs.

The issue has become increasingly contentious over the past year, as European drug-makers have stopped supplying drugs known to be used in lethal injections on principle and American pharmacists who have admitted to filling the role have drawn the ire of protesters and led to boycotts.

The court’s decision Monday said the suspension would be in place until “final determination of all issues presently pending before the court…along with all issues that may be brought by [the corrections department]…and any legal challenges that may arise as a result of this court’s resolution of those issues are actively litigated.”

That decision, while popular with death penalty opponents who claimed the drugs could lead to each inmate experiencing “cruel and unusual punishment” during their final moments, was criticized by Oklahoma’s Republican governor, May Fallin. Fallin declared that the court acted “outside the constitutional authority” in the case and ordered each man be put to death within seven days, although legal experts quickly wondered if she was up to speed on her own legal authority.

Governor Fallin is a politician and not a lawyer,” Randall Coyne, an expert on constitutional law at the University of Oklahoma, told the Guardian. “According to well-established precedent of the US Supreme Court, the courts – not executive officials – have the final word on what is constitutional. She of course has the right to disagree with judicial decisions but they remain the law. The governor is dangerously close to precipitating a constitutional crisis.”

According to opponents of the Fallin administration, the introduction of articles of impeachment that were drafted Wednesday were intended as political pressure. Republican Representative Mike Christian claimed the justices engaged in “willful neglect of duty” by temporarily halting the executions.

Speaking to the Associated Press after the ruling changed, Justice Steven Taylor said that the inmates’ claim that they may not know until it was too late if that would endure “cruel and unusual punishment” was not relevant.

The plaintiffs have no more right to the information they requested than if they were being executed in the electric chair, they would have no right to know whether OG&E or PSO were providing the electricity; if they were being hanged, they would have no right to know whether it be cotton or nylon rope; or if they were being executed by firing squad, they would have no right to know whether it be by Winchester or Remington ammunition,” he wrote. “I hope that this case ends any thought of future journeys down this path that has led this court to this day.”

Both Lockett – convicted in the 1999 kidnapping, rape, and murder of a 19-year-old woman - and Warner – convicted for the 1997 rape and murder of an 11-month-old girl – are currently slated to die next week.

Think Progress reported that this case, aside from its implications, is another in a long line of attempts by Oklahoma politicians to control judges. Fallin’s administration has at times sought to portray judges up for election as being “soft on crime,” the website said, by manipulating them into ruling in favor of such policies like the death penalty if they want to voters to keep them on the bench.

Fallin would likely disagree with such an assertion. “This ruling shows that our legal system works,” she said of the final verdict.

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