If Oklahoma was hoping to establish a tradition or trend of botched executions, it brought in the right people to carry them out.
Just days after overseeing a disturbing execution at Arizona’s Florence prison complex in July 2014, former warden Lance Hetmer was hired as a special assistant to Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton, whose agency was responsible for its own botched lethal injection just three months earlier.
On July 23, 2014, Hetmer supervised the execution of Arizona death row prisoner Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was injected 15 times with an experimental combination of drugs that included midazolam and hydromorphone. According to witnesses, Wood snorted and gasped for air more than 600 times until he finally succumbed almost two hours later.
During the execution, attorneys for Wood – who was convicted of the 1989 shooting deaths of his former girlfriend and her father – filed an emergency motion with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to stop the procedure. But Wood died of an apparent heart attack before the court took any action.
The next day, Hetmer, who had monitored Wood’s execution alongside Arizona DOC Director Charles L. Ryan, retired from his position as warden. Four days later he was hired by the Oklahoma DOC as Patton’s special assistant – a job that previously did not exist – at an annual salary of $95,000.
Patton was employed as division director of operations for the Arizona DOC before jumping ship to head Oklahoma’s prison system in January 2014.
Three months later the Oklahoma DOC oversaw the botched execution of death row prisoner Clayton Lockett, who writhed and mumbled for 43 minutes, and at one point tried to get up from the gurney, before prison staff removed the IV that was pumping his body full of midazolam, stopping the execution. Shortly thereafter Lockett died, also due to an apparent heart attack.
Patton allegedly (and ironically) received death threats from opponents of capital punishment following Lockett’s execution, and the state provided him with a security detail and a bullet-resistant SUV when he traveled.
Apparently without regard to the suffering or dignity of death row prisoners, a legacy of sloppy execution practices preceded Patton’s appointment to the Oklahoma DOC. As part of a 2011 lawsuit filed by condemned prisoners in Arizona, Patton admitted in a deposition that a member of the Arizona DOC’s execution team – which he oversaw – lacked the necessary qualifications to administer an IV. Patton acknowledged that he never bothered to check if the execution team members had experience placing femoral IVs, which was a requirement of Arizona’s execution protocol.
Oklahoma state investigators later found that an improperly placed IV was one of the contributing factors in the mishandling of Lockett’s lethal injection.
Medical experts have said that midazolam – which has been used in three executions nationwide that had similar complications and went on much longer than other lethal injections – does not qualify as a true anesthetic.
Corrections departments in states that sanction the death penalty have struggled to develop a humane execution protocol since many pharmaceutical manufacturers have banned the supply of their drugs to prisons for lethal injections. Most recently, pharma company Pfizer announced in May 2016 that it was imposing strict restrictions on its products for use in executions.
“States have been scrambling over the past many months to find new sources of drugs. They have been experimenting,” said Megan McCracken with the Berkeley School of Law’s Death Penalty Clinic. “These procedures are unreliable and the consequences are horrific.”
As Patton’s special assistant, Hetmer could be involved in drafting policies related to state executions, according to Oklahoma DOC spokesman Jerry Massie. He added that Hetmer’s job duties include “whatever assignment the director gives him, so I would imagine you couldn’t rule it out.”
On January 15, 2015, the State of Oklahoma executed Charles Frederick Warner. During the procedure Warner screamed “my body is on fire!” It was later discovered that a pharmacist had placed an incorrect order and Oklahoma DOC staff failed to verify they had received the right drugs. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.63]. Governor Mary Fallin responded by temporarily suspending executions in the state.
Again, this mishandling of a lethal injection in Oklahoma was a corollary to executions Patton had overseen in Arizona. As reported by Buzzfeed News, Patton stated in a deposition related to the 2011 Arizona lawsuit that he never actually checked to confirm which drugs, or what dosages, were being used in the Arizona executions he oversaw.
Following Warner’s botched lethal injection, the state was preparing to execute Richard Glossip in September 2015 when Oklahoma DOC employees discovered they had again received the wrong drugs.
Rather than immediately staying Glossip’s execution (which had already been stayed more than once), Governor Fallin’s office, fearing further negative press related to the state’s lethal injection practices, instead moved forward.
Governor Fallin’s then-general counsel Steve Mullins had reportedly advised that the Oklahoma DOC execute Glossip – again using the incorrect drugs – and follow his death with an executive “clarification on the protocol.” Fortunately that didn’t happen and Glossip’s execution was eventually stayed.
In late 2015, the Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General empaneled a grand jury to investigate problems related to the state’s lethal injection protocol. Several state officials resigned during the course of the investigation, including Patton, Mullins and Oklahoma Penitentiary Warden Anita Trammell. The grand jury published its findings, including Mullins’ role in the attempted execution of Glossip, in a damning 106-page report issued in May 2016.
Patton had announced his resignation in December 2015, saying he wanted to return to Arizona to be closer to his family. In a press release issued at the time Patton resigned, Governor Fallin praised him for a job well done.
“I appreciate Robert Patton’s efforts to keep our state prisons safe for both correctional officers and inmates,” she said. “During his tenure, he worked to reform DOC’s internal operations to be more efficient and effective.... I regret his departure, but I understand the importance of family and the need to be close to loved ones. I wish him well in his future endeavors.”
In contrast, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt issued a less laudatory statement following the release of the grand jury report. “Today, I regret to advise the citizens of Oklahoma that the Department of Corrections failed to do its job,” he stated. “[A] number of individuals responsible for carrying out the execution process were careless, cavalier and in some circumstances dismissive of established procedures that were intended to guard against the very mistakes that occurred.”
Pruitt added that the grand jury would commence a second round of investigations in June 2016 and generate another report. Meanwhile, all executions in the state have been stayed until at least six months after the second grand jury report is released.
Sources: Tulsa World, www.foxnews.com, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.newsok.com, www.buzzfeed.com, New York Times, www.usnews.com
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