Two Oklahoma executions were held up this week after the state's Supreme Court put off the punishments for two death row inmates who have challenged the secrecy surrounding the source of the state's lethal injection drugs.
In a 5-4 decision Monday, the court issued the stays one day before death row inmate Clayton Lockett was scheduled to be executed for the 1999 shooting death of 19-year-old Stephanie Nieman. The second inmate, Charles Warner, was convicted in the 1997 death of his roommate's 11-month-old daughter and was scheduled to die on April 29, according to The Associated Press.
The ruling halts the executions until the state Supreme Court can hold a hearing on the inmates' lawsuit. Attorney General Scott Pruitt's office did not say whether it would appeal.
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"The AG's office is trying to determine the appropriate response to address these issues," Pruitt said in an emailed statement.
A spokesman for the Department of Corrections, Jerry Massie, said the agency had not seen the order and was still preparing as if Lockett's execution would be held Tuesday.
The Supreme Court said it wanted to fast-track the case, but a hearing had not yet been scheduled.
Oklahoma changed its procedures on March 21 to allow five different potential drug combinations for executions. The state informed lawyers for the inmates on April 1 that the men would be executed using a combination of midazolam, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride never before used in the state, but did not disclose the source of the drugs. Executions have been conducted using the drug combination in Florida with lower doses.
States that have the death penalty have been scrambling for substitute drugs or new sources for drugs after major drugmakers — many based in Europe with longtime opposition to the death penalty — stopped selling to prisons and corrections departments.
Attorneys for Lockett and Nieman said they were pleased with Monday's ruling.
"The Oklahoma Supreme Court will be able to fully adjudicate the serious constitutional issues about the extreme secrecy surrounding lethal injection procedures in our state," attorneys Susanna Gattoni and Seth Day said in a statement.
Gattoni told the AP that the inmates' appeal challenges the secrecy surrounding the drugs, including how they are prepared and obtained.
"In order for the courts to be able to do their job of ensuring that all state and federal laws are followed, they must have complete information about the drugs intended for use in executions, including their source," she said.
Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish last month struck down the execution law, saying preventing the inmates from seeking information about the drugs violates their rights under the state constitution.
A request for a stay filed with the Supreme Court on Monday said the inmates "have received no certifications, testing data, medical opinions or other evidence to support the state's insistence that these drugs are safe, or to prove that they were acquired legally."
The Supreme Court handed down its stay order amid a dispute among its nine justices over whether it or the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals should address the matter. The Supreme Court has ultimate legal authority over civil matters, while the Court of Criminal Appeals has exclusive authority in criminal appeals. The Court of Appeals on Friday denied the inmates' request for a stay, saying it didn't have authority.
"The 'rule of necessity' now demands that we step forward," the Supreme Court's majority opinion says. "We can deny jurisdiction, or we can leave the appellants with no access to the courts for resolution of their 'grave' constitutional claims.
"As uncomfortable as this matter makes us, we refuse to violate our oaths of office and to leave the appellants with no access to the courts, their constitutionally guaranteed measure."
In his statement, Pruitt said the Supreme Court "has acted in an extraordinary and unprecedented manner, resulting in a constitutional crisis for our state."
In Texas, Department of Criminal Justice officials have refused to identify the source of the pentobarbital used in its executions, contending secrecy is needed to protect the drug's provider from threats of violence from capital punishment opponents. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to stop executions on those, although prison officials have offered scant evidence that pharmacies would be in danger. The state has executed three inmates with the new stock of the power sedative, and the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to stop those executions.
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