Donald Grant: Oklahoma set to execute disabled Black man a month before trial challenging lethal injection begins

Oklahoma resumed executions in 2021 after a six-year moratorium

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Thursday 27 January 2022 05:09
Biden through the years: The death penalty

Oklahoma is set to execute another inmate this week using its controversial lethal injection method, a month before the start of a federal lawsuit begins challenging the drugs as an unconstitutional, cruel, and unusual punishment that makes men feel like they’re being “burned alive”.

Donald Grant, 46, who has diagnosed mental health challenges, will be killed via lethal injection on 10am on Thursday at Oklahoma’s state penitentiary in McAlester. Grant was convicted of killing two hotel workers, Brena McElyea and Felicia Suzette Smith, during a robbery in 2001 in Del City, and says he sought the $200 he stole to bail his girlfriend out of jail.

"Mr Grant is well aware he’s going to be executed. He does not wish to be executed. He is afraid, and he understands that he may die like John Grant. And he’s terrified of that," his attorney Susan Otto, told KOCO. Last October, Oklahoma performed its first executions after a six-year moratorium, and witnesses and critics say the killing was botched, as John Grant convulsed and vomited for minutes of “torture” on the execution table. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has said the execution followed protocols.

Donald Grant had appealed to a series of federal courts, culminating in the Supreme Court, to hold off on his execution, seeking to join a long-running federal lawsuit from two dozen Oklahoma death row inmates challenging the state’s lethal injection protocols. A trial in the suit begins in federal court in late February.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court rejected Grant’s request, following earlier rejects from federal appeals courts.

“The public will be ill-served if applicants are executed before a full opportunity to test the protocol’s legality,” attorneys for Grant and another death row inmate, Gilbert Postelle, said earlier this week in court.

Anti-death penalty advocates have also criticised the upcoming execution.

"The 2022 execution schedule opens with the executions of two poor Black men with mental health issues because they failed to choose to die in a gas chamber rather than by the needle," said Abraham Bonowitz, executive director of Death Penalty Action, referring to Donald Grant and an Alabama death row inmate, who are both scheduled to be executed in the coming days.

"It is therefore a strange juxtaposition that January 27th is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I am not comparing US executions to the Holocaust, but as a Jew who lost family in the Nazi era, I feel comfortable saying this: Adolph Hitler’s personal physician invented lethal injections for use on mentally ill and intellectually disabled people among others.”

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections has defended its execution protocols, saying things have changed drastically since the series of botched killings and lethal drug mix-ups that inspired the moratorium.

Earlier this month, a federal court agreed with them, arguing the John Grant execution was something of an anomaly. The vomiting witnessed during the execution was a result of Grant consuming a large amount of chips and soda before being rendered unconscious by the execution drugs.

“The important point here is that all of this occurred while Grant was unconscious and insensate to pain as a result of the administration of a massive dose of midazolam,” wrote US district Judge Stephen Friot on 14 January, holding that neither Donald Grant nor Postelle were likely to proceed on their claims challenging the lethal injection process in their upcoming executions.

The two men had previously sought to be executed by firing squad rather than lethal injection, but a federal judge ruled in January they had elected for an alternative execution method too late to be added to the prisoner lawsuit.

Donald Grant had lifelong challenges with mental health and intellectual disability that went untreated for decades, according to his attorneys. Growing up in a Brooklyn, New York, housing project, Grant says he was routinely abused by family members, had a mother who struggled with crack-cocaine, and was often left with his brother to scrounge in trash cans for food.

During a hearing requesting clemency, which was ultimately rejected, Grant talked about his struggle to process information.

“I can’t really explain myself because, truth be told, I really don’t understand myself mentally. I don’t understand myself, how I think, how I function,” he said. “I was not in my rightful mind. I was in my wrongful mind, meaning you know when I let that entity talk to me, which is the devil. ’Cause God don’t tell you to go kill somebody. That ain’t our nature and everything.”

He says he was previously offered the chance to elect an alternative execution method and join the prisoner lawsuit, but didn’t understand that his choice not to initially choose the only other alternative at the time, gas asphyxiation, would have such a profound effect on his life.

“If this lawyer that seen me would have explained to me, bluntly, that if I don’t chose a method, that I would be tooken [sic] off the lawsuit, and will be executed right away, I would have understood that, and chose the methods,” he told a judge in a hand-written note in September.

Susie Webster, the aunt of one of Grant’s victims, Brena McElyea, told Vice News she is glad the execution is going forward.

“Please, I firmly believe that he deserves to die,” she said. “Given the chance to live, he would cut your throat and put a bullet in your brain.”

Grant’s possessions have been shipped to his family, and he requested shrimp fried rice, egg rolls, donuts, and strawberry ice cream for his last meal.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

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