Witnesses to the execution of an Oklahoma death row inmate on Thursday described a cruel and inhumane process that left the prisoner convulsing and vomiting for several minutes before he was eventually declared dead. The latest reports about the state’s widely criticized lethal injection process contradicted those from state corrections officials, who said the death penalty execution took place “without complication.”
John Grant, a 60-year-old Black man, suffered “repeated convulsions and extensive vomiting for nearly 15 minutes” before he was finally pronounced dead, according to Dan Snyder, a journalist with the local Fox affiliate who said he was a witness to the execution.
Kassie McClung, a reporter with local news outlet the Frontier who also witnessed the execution, tweeted about the process in similar terms to Snyder and claimed Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy, who has witnessed more than a dozen executions, “said he has never seen anyone vomit” from lethal injection until Thursday. McClung tweeted that Murphy compared Grant’s convulsions to Clayton Lockett, a death row inmate who controversially suffered a heart attack during his execution in 2014. At the time, the Atlantic referred to it as a “botched lethal injection.”
McClung also posted a video of a spokesperson for Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections describing Grant’s experience that was consistent with what the other witnesses said. McClung called the details “disturbing.”
Grant was executed just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a ruling that granted stays of execution for Oklahoma death row inmates after a death penalty moratorium of nearly seven years in the state. He was convicted of murdering a prison worker while he was already incarcerated on separate charges.
To be sure, the lethal inject process in Oklahoma has a damning reputation for being “reckless” and “careless,” according to a scathing grand jury report in 2016.
“The missteps described by the grand jury include a pharmacist ordering the wrong drug for executions, multiple state employees failing to notice or tell anyone about the mixup and a high-ranking official in the governor’s office urging others to carry out an execution even with the incorrect drug,” the Washington Post reported at the time.
In Lockett’s case, an independent autopsy performed by a forensic pathologist discovered that the Oklahoma State Penitentiary failed to administer the injection despite veins in the 38-year-old’s arm being in excellent shape. The execution team attempted to insert an IV into Lockett’s femoral vein unsuccessfully and apparently attempted to apply the needles into his arms, according to the forensic pathologist’s report. The team tried to insert the IV on both sides of Lockett’s groin and failed to set the IV in both of his arms, leaving behind “skin punctures on the extremities and right and left femoral areas.”
The state claimed that Lockett’s veins collapsed or “blew out,” but the forensic pathologist claimed the team made numerous failed attempts to set the IV and essentially set an improperly placed IV into the femoral vein.
There were also concerns about how properly trained personnel were regarding the execution. The Department of Corrections timeline revealed that the IV was applied by a phlebotomist and later confirmed by the state. When a local news outlet questioned the matter, the state reversed its statement and said that an unnamed EMT was the person to apply the femoral vein IV. According to the state’s execution protocol, a physician should have set the IV and not a phlebotomist.
Apparently eager to execute more inmates since Lockett’s case prompted a statewide halt on lethal injections, Oklahoma in 2015 quickly signed a law making nitrogen gas a backup execution method. At the time, nitrogen was reportedly not tested as an execution method and works by starving the body of oxygen.
Another issue with executions in Oklahoma is the fact Black people are disproportionately placed on the state’s death row, a symptom of a larger national issue.
An NPR report published last year drew attention to how autopsies of death row inmates killed by lethal injection increasingly showed evidence of botched executions via pulmonary edema, which fills lungs with blood, plasma and other fluids to create a sensation of suffocation or drowning.
“A review of more than 200 autopsies — obtained through public records requests — showed signs of pulmonary edema in 84% of the cases,” NPR reported. “The findings were similar across the states and, notably, across the different drug protocols used.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has long been a proponent for ending the death penalty because it “inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law.”
Even still, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Thursday paves the way for Oklahoma to execute another Black man next month. Julius Jones, who was convicted of the 1999 first-degree murder of an insurance salesman, is scheduled to be executed on Nov. 18.