Lethal injection made its debut in Oklahoma 20 years ago
The killing got off to a late start.
Witnesses who'd gathered at the state penitentiary in McAlester expected Charles Troy Coleman to commence dying at 12:02 a.m. That's when the execution was set to start.
As the clock ticked toward a quarter after the hour, though, prison officials remained quiet. Some observers worried that something was amiss. Others wondered whether the Supreme Court had stepped in or whether the governor had issued a last-minute stay.
About 12:15 a.m., the dozen media witnesses were escorted into a viewing room. There would be a death that night, after all. Curtains opened, and Coleman, a murderer, could be seen inside the death chamber. He was lying on a gurney. A sheet covered his body, but his head was exposed.
The execution began 10 minutes later.
Art Cox, of the Enid News & Eagle, who witnessed it, described Coleman's end as a "very easy death ... a very cold death, very antiseptic." Warden James Saffle said Coleman died quickly.
Joe Ward, an investigator for the public defender's office who had come to know and like Coleman, perceived it differently.
"I saw him choke and gasp and struggle for air," Ward said. "It looked like he was choking to death. He looked over ... and mouthed the words, 'I love you.' Then he looked straight back up and started choking."
He was pronounced dead at 12:35 a.m.
It was Sept. 10, 1990. Oklahoma had executed its first prisoner by lethal injection.
Over the next two decades, the state would employ the drug cocktail 91 more times, executing more people in that span than in the preceding 75 years. Three were women. Additional convicts are scheduled to die this year.
The federal government and the 35 states with the death penalty use lethal injection as the primary form of execution, and it has been used on 1,050 prisoners nationwide, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
But it — like the death penalty itself — has spurred ardent debate, and condemned prisoners continue to file appeals claiming that state-sanctioned drug deaths are unconstitutional and cruel.
Twenty years after Coleman's death, the method remains as controversial as ever.
Coleman was the only Oklahoma convict put to death in 1990 and the first since James French was electrocuted in 1966.
The death penalty was suspended by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972. The court declared in Furman v. Georgia that Georgia's death penalty system violated the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. The court's decision stopped executions nationwide and commuted the sentences of hundreds of condemned prisoners.
The ban didn't last. States changed their death penalty laws to avoid the constitutional problems cited by the court, and in 1977, Utah executed Gary Gilmore by firing squad.
That same year, Oklahoma became the first state to establish lethal injection as a method of execution. Dr. Jay Chapman, Oklahoma's first medical examiner, devised the recipe that still is used in most states today.
"The proposal was for three drugs," he said recently. "Some people have termed it a cocktail. It starts with an ultra short-acting barbiturate, which renders the individual unconscious, then the vecuronium bromide, which paralyzes, and then the third drug, potassium chloride, which stops the heart."
Lethal injection was developed as the "most humane" way to end life, he said.
"It could not be construed as cruel and unusual punishment since it is merely the extreme of procedures done daily around the world for surgical procedures," Chapman said. "It's simply an extreme form of anesthesia."
Condemned prisoners insist that Chapman is wrong.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center: "Those raising lethal injection challenges (both those executed and those stayed) are generally claiming that the drugs used in the executions cause extreme and unnecessary pain, and that the combination of chemicals masks the pain being experienced by the inmate from the sight of those administering the death penalty."
Some prisoners have had dramatic reactions to the drugs. In 1992, Oklahoman killer Robyn Lee Parks took 11 minutes to die. The Oklahoman's Don Mecoy, who witnessed Parks' death, wrote:
"Parks was blinking and nervously licking his lips when he gasped and violently gagged. His head jerked toward his right shoulder, turning away from the gathered witnesses as he lapsed into unconsciousness. He groaned as his girlfriend, Debra Sutton, cried out: 'This isn't real. This isn't real. Oh God, it isn't real.'"
Scott Carpenter, also a murderer, was executed in Oklahoma in 1997. Oklahoman reporter Tony Thornton wrote: "His body made 18 violent convulsions, followed by eight milder ones, before the life drained from him."
Most, however, slip quietly into unconsciousness and death, and state Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie said he is unaware of any "major issues" resulting from lethal injections.
"We've had some occasions where they had more of a physical reaction to it, according to the witnesses, and we've had some issues with finding a vein at times, usually with intravenous drug users, but we've been able to resolve those," he said.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court validated the use of the three-drug cocktail but foresaw further arguments on the issue, the Death Penalty Information Center noted.
"I assumed that our decision would bring the debate about lethal injection as a method of execution to a close," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in an opinion. "It now seems clear that it will not. ... Instead of ending the controversy, I am now convinced that this case will generate debate not only about the constitutionality of the three-drug protocol ... but also about the justification for the death penalty itself."
Most recently, a federal judge issued a 60-day stay of execution hours before Oklahoma prisoner Jeffrey David Matthews was to die on Aug. 17.
At issue was the Corrections Department's plan to use a different barbiturate than usual: Brevital, a form of methohexital sodium, instead of sodium thiopental. Manufacturing problems have caused a national shortage of the latter drug.
"We had it," Massie said. "I don't know if it expired or what, but when we had it tested, we weren't satisfied with the quality of it."
Defense attorneys argued that Brevital never has been used in executions and is not an acceptable alternative. The state said the drug meets the statutory requirement for an ultra short-acting barbiturate.
The Corrections Department now has obtained more sodium thiopental. The attorney general has asked the judge to lift the stay of execution. If the judge complies, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals will set a new execution date.http://newsok.com/lethal-injection-made-its-debut-in-oklahoma-20-years-ago/article/3492556