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Oklahoma attorney general agrees to 6-month hold on state executions

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(Read caption) The gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary is pictured in McAlester, Okla., April 2008.

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Oklahoma’s attorney general agreed on Thursday to delay for six months the state’s next execution, after a bungled execution last week put an intense spotlight on how capital punishment is handled in the United States.

Oklahoma Attorney General E. Scott Pruitt said in a court filing that his office would not oppose the request of Charles Warner’s lawyers to postpone his execution for 180 days, should the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issue a stay for the condemned man. Mr. Warner had been scheduled for execution on April 29, just two hours after inmate Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack in a botched procedure that took more than 40 minutes.

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A six-month stay would extend the two-week hold on Warner's execution that Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) ordered after Mr. Lockett's death. Amid a global furor over Lockett’s grisly execution, lawyers for Warner asked for a stay of execution beyond May 13 to allow investigators more time to determine what went wrong in the Lockett execution. 

Governor Fallin has authority to put executions on hold for up to 60 days. For stays beyond that, the attorney general must seek approval from the appeals court.

At issue in the investigation of Lockett’s death is whether the lethal-injection drugs the state used were tainted or subpar. After the usual supplier of Oklahoma’s drugs stopped selling them for use in executions, the state bought pharmaceuticals for its three-drug cocktail from a pharmacy that requested anonymity, to avoid getting pulled into the debate over capital punishment. Lockett’s lawyers had fought to force Oklahoma to disclose the source of the drugs, arguing that the prisoner had a right to know what drugs the state planned to use to kill him. Fallin ordered the execution to go ahead, even though the state Supreme Court had decided in favor of a stay.

Critics say the execution was mishandled in other ways, and they suggest that Oklahoma may not be prepared to conduct executions consistent with the US Constitution's ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” State officials have said Lockett’s vein collapsed mid-execution, and media witnesses described the condemned man as waking up and showing signs of pain soon after he was declared to be unconscious. The director of the state's corrections system called off the execution, but officials say Lockett later died of a “massive heart attack” at 7:06 p.m. 

A report by a panel of legal experts this week presented a catch-22 for reforming lethal injection executions, saying the three-drug cocktail that Oklahoma and other states use carries the risk that the initial sedative can be under-administered, and that the prisoner may wake up and experience the sensation of suffocation when the two other drugs start flowing.

A one-drug method is preferable, the panel members said, but that drug's main suppliers no longer sell to executioners. The practice of using drugs from pharmacies whose names states won’t disclose, they added, is unacceptably risky.

The panel cited other problems with capital punishment as practiced in the US, including the risk of executing innocent people and people with mental disabilities. President Obama said he has ordered the Justice Department to review the death penalty in the US, citing the Oklahoma execution as having “highlighted” additional questions he has about capital punishment, including how racial bias factors into sentencing.

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Warner was sentenced to death for raping and killing his roommate’s child, who was not yet a year old. Lockett was convicted of shooting a 19-year-old woman and standing by as his accomplices buried her alive.