Oklahoma put John Marion Grant to death last week, resuming executions after a six-year hiatus. Grant had been sentenced for the killing of a cafeteria worker in 1998 at the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy, Oklahoma, where he was serving a 130-year sentence for numerous armed robberies. A horrible crime with a gruesome aftermath.
Grant’s execution was horribly botched. It was anything but the antiseptic, hospital-like procedure that lethal injection is sometimes imagined to be. His is the latest in a long string of lethal injections gone wrong and yet another reminder that what was once thought to be this country’s most humane execution method is now its most problematic.
Lethal injection was first seriously considered as a method of execution by the state of New York in the late 19th century. After a series of badly botched hangings, the state created a commission and charged it to find a better alternative.
The so-called Gerry Commission ultimately chose the electric chair to replace hanging, in no small part because the medical community took an unwavering stance against lethal injection. As the sociologist Richard Moran notes, doctors “did not want the syringe, which was associated with the alleviation of humane suffering, to become an instrument of death.”
But by the second half of the 20th century, things had changed.
In 1977, Oklahoma became the first death penalty state to adopt lethal injection. Its proponents in the state Legislature argued that it had two clear advantages. First, it was much cheaper than electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, or shooting. Second, they contended that it would be much more humane.
Because no other country had ever used this execution method, they had no evidence on which to base any claim about safety. Nonetheless, they declared that death could be accomplished with “no struggle, no stench, no pain.” Execution with no struggle, no stench, no pain was hardly what the witnesses to Grant’s execution saw in Oklahoma on Thursday.
One witness, a reporter for the Associated Press, Sean Murphy, said that soon after the first drug, midazolam, was administered, Grant began convulsing. He convulsed, by Murphy’s count, two dozen times before he vomited, with the vomit covering his face and running down his neck. Murphy said he had witnessed 14 executions and this is the first one in which the inmate vomited.
After members of the execution team entered the execution chamber to wipe Grant’s face, he continued to have what Murphy called full-body and “involuntary convulsions.” Grant ultimately did die, soon after the second and third drugs in Oklahoma’s protocol—vecuronium bromide, a paralytic, and potassium chloride to stop the heart—were administered.
Given the state’s recent track record, it is not surprising that Oklahoma botched Grant’s execution.
In 2014, the state put Clayton Lockett to death in what would turn out to be one of this country’s most ghastly and notorious botched executions. As Lockett laid strapped to a gurney, execution team members tried repeatedly to find a usable vein, poking him over and over in his arms and legs before finally doing a cut down procedure to expose a vein in his groin. But even then, they failed to get things right. Instead of going into his vein, the lethal drugs went into the muscles.
Lockett writhed in pain for more than 40 minutes before he died.
In 2015, Oklahoma used the wrong drug, potassium acetate—not potassium chloride—to stop the heart of Charles Warner. As that drug was being administered, Warner called out, “My body is on fire.” In another 2015 case, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin had to call off Richard Glossip’s execution at the last minute because of concerns that the state was about to repeat the mistake it made in putting Warner to death.
Difficulties with lethal injection are not just Oklahoma’s problem. They are a national problem. And of all of America’s execution technologies, lethal injection has the most dismal track record.
Between 1890 and 2010, the United States put 8,776 people to death by hanging, electrocution, gassing, shooting and lethal injection. Precisely 276 (3.15 percent) of those executions were botched. And, of all of the technologies used during that period, lethal injection was the most problematic, with 7.1 percent having been botched.
Although less gruesome and dramatic than botched hangings, gassings, or electrocutions, lethal injection has had grotesque mishaps. It is not uncommon for executioners, as in the Lockett case, to have trouble establishing a line to deliver the lethal drugs, or for drug dosages to be insufficient, or for there to be problems, as in the Warner case, with the drugs used in lethal injections.
In the last decade, these problems intensified, as pharmaceutical companies tried to prevent their drugs from being used in executions. This left states scrambling to find substitutes or to just improvise. Some even procured drugs to use in executions through illegal channels. The last decade also saw the unravelling of the original lethal injection paradigm and its once standard three drug-protocol—sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride.
In fact, by the end of 2012, no states employed that drug combination. By the end of 2020, states had tried at least 10 other drugs or drug combinations in their executions. Some drugs were used multiple times, while others were used just once and then discarded.
Such experimentation has exacted a heavy toll on those put to death by lethal injection. In September 2020, a National Public Radio investigation found signs of pulmonary edema—fluid filling the lungs—in 84 percent of the 216 post-lethal injection autopsies it reviewed. Some autopsies found that inmates’ lungs filled while they continued to breathe, which would cause them to feel as if they were drowning and suffocating.
Research I and my collaborators recently completed shows that, during the past decade, lethal injection’s problems mounted. Executioners botched a larger percentage (8.4 percent) of lethal injections than in earlier periods of its use. When midazolam is used, as it is in Oklahoma’s current protocol, that rate skyrockets to 22.4 percent.
After Grant’s execution, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow claimed that it was “completed without complication” and indicated that there were no plans to change anything in the executions the state is planning to carry out over the next several months.
But the Grant fiasco demonstrates that going full speed ahead with Oklahoma’s plan will do nothing to ensure that forthcoming executions will not be botched. They should be halted so that no one else suffers Grant’s fate.
What happened to John Marion Grant is just the latest evidence that this nation’s experiment with lethal injection has failed. And it shows yet again why America’s death penalty should be ended—not just because the state should not be killing its own citizens, but because it has found no method to carry out death sentences in a manner consistent with Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.