Supreme Court okays Oklahoma executions after six-year moratorium

The decision comes a day after a federal appeals court said the executions shouldn’t go forward.

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 29 October 2021 00:52 BST
Virginia lawmakers vote to abolish death penalty
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Oklahoma has conducted its first execution in six years, after the Supreme Court on Thursday held the state didn’t need to wait for the resolution of a lawsuit challenging its death penalty protocol as unconstitutional.

John Grant, who has been on death row since 1998 after being convicted of killing an Oklahoma prison employee, was executed on Thursday after via lethal injection. Julius Jones, who was convicted in the 1999 murder of businessman Paul Howell in the Oklahoma City suburbs, could be executed later this month.

Jones, whose case has attracted a growing “Justice for Julius” innocence movement, maintains he is not a killer. He is scheduled to ask state officials for clemency at a hearing at the beginning of November. Jones is out of other legal avenues for appeal. If Oklahoma’s governor doesn’t intervene, he will be executed on 18 November.

Civil rights advocates were alarmed that Oklahoma’s death row inmates, including Grant and Jones, are now facing execution before their constitutional case early next year could play out. A day before the high court decision, the US Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the state needed to wait until a scheduled trial in February 2022 was over to proceed with the killings.

“A federal lawsuit is pending in Oklahoma City on whether Oklahoma’s protocol for lethal injections constitutes cruel and unusual punishment,” Reverend Don Heath, chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said on Thursday. “A three-judge panel has issued stays of execution. Why is the State appealing this stay to the US Supreme Court? What is the urgency of killing these men?”

“Executions will go forward in Oklahoma despite significant questions regarding the constitutionality of the state’s execution protocol,” added Dale Baich, a public defender who was representing the men in the suit, in a statement.

He noted that the Supreme Court was permitting Oklahoma executions even though a lower court had “ordered a trial to determine whether the protocol creates an unconstitutional risk of excessive pain and suffering.”

Oklahoma hasn’t executed anyone since 2015, after a series of botched executions where two men were killed using the incorrect lethal injection drugs, resulting in visible suffering. A third man, Richard Glossip, nearly met the same fate, before the execution was called off with hours to spare.

Since then, the state hasn’t carried out any death sentences, and a group of more than 30 death row inmates have challenged Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocols as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2020, Oklahoma announced it would resume executions using the same three-drug mixture for its lethal injection protocol, with added safeguards.

"The Department of Corrections has addressed concerns regarding carrying out the death penalty and is prepared to follow the will of the people of Oklahoma, as expressed in state statute, and the orders of the courts by carrying out the execution of inmates sentenced to death by a jury of their peers," director Scott Crow said on Tuesday in a press release.

Critics have argued the state still isn’t doing enough to ensure the humane treatment of those it executes. They have raised concerns that the state doesn’t publicly identify where it sources its drugs, and that it continues to use the drug midazolam, which the constitutional lethal injection suit argues doesn’t suitably sedate those being executed.

Justice for Julius activists say they’re holding onto hope that Jones could still avoid execution following his 1 November clemency hearing, which will mark his first chance to speak openly with state officials about the entirety of his case in two decades.

“I’m doing the best praying I’ve ever done in my life, hoping that everybody understands the real merits of Julius’s case and that justice is truly done, which would be something very different from killing him,” Cece Davis-Jones, a leader of the movement, told The Independent.

She added that the Jones family is also mourning the loss of Grant, whom they and Julius got to know on death row.

“They are just quiet people with a lot of faith,” she said. “I know that they are sad to know that Mr Grant has left this world by the hands of the state. They knew him. They would see him from time to time when they would go visit Julius. Julius got to know John Grant. In situations like this, people don’t remain numbers and statistics, they’re real human beings.”

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