On January 16th, 2015 there were two executions scheduled. The US Supreme Court refused in a 5-4 vote to stay the execution of Charles Warner in Oklahoma, the State’s first since its horrendously botched execution of Clayton Lockett last year. In Florida, tonight’s execution of Johnny Shane Kormondy was also delayed pending the outcome of the Warner petition. In the end both execution proceeded, although both had been delayed while the Supreme Court deliberated and rendered its decision.
Warner was one of several Oklahoma inmates mounting a court challenge to the State’s newest three-drug lethal injection protocol. Of course, the US penal system has spent the last few years suffering from a progressive shortage of sodium pentathol, the fast-acting anaesthetic originally used to sedate an inmate prior to injections of potassium chloride to stop the heart and pancuronium bromide to paralyse the lungs. States have since opted by and large for pentobarbital as a replacement but, again, have found it impossible to obtain further supplies as European Union drug companies holding the patents are barred under EU law from selling drugs used in executions.
As an institution the EU is solidly against capital punishment and abolition is an ironclad requirement for any country even seeking membership. EU-based drug companies are forbidden under EU law from exporting drugs used in lethal injection executions and, in order to forestall attempts to buy secretly through third parties, have clauses in their contracts expressly forbidding that the drugs be sold or passed on for use in executions. Nor will EU countries extradite to any country that might apply the death penalty to an extradited prisoner.
Pancuronium bromide has also largely been replaced with vecuronium bromide in States still using a three-drug protocol although some, such as Ohio, have switched to single-drug protocol and the most popular choice for that another fast-acting barbiturate, Midazolam. It ‘s the use of Midazolam that Warner and other inmates have legally challenged on the grounds that there’s no accurate way of proving that it’s a sufficiently potent drug for the job even when administered in a much larger dose than was given to Clayton Lockett , a dose Oklahoma ultimately gave to Charles Warner tonight.
Florida and Oklahoma both employ the same three-drug protocol. Both are regular practitioners of executions. Florida was the first State to experiment with Midazolam when it executed William Happ. Warner, in fact, was scheduled to die immediately after Clayton Lockett but his execution was stayed immediately after Lockett’s agonising death that lasted over forty minutes, spawning the lawsuit of which he was part. When Warner died, Johnny Shane Kormondy in Florida also died, by similar procedures using the same drugs. We can but hope at the time of writing that neither suffered the fate of Lockett in Oklahoma or, worse, that of Joseph Wood in Arizona whose execution took over two hours before he finally died after what must have been hideous suffering.
Oklahoma among other States has been strongly criticized for its seemingly experimental attitude to execution procedure, what an ACLU blog post recently called ‘torture roulette.’ Opponents of such experimentation argue that it’s exactly that and thus contravenes the Eighth Amendment outlawing cruel and unusual punishment. The EU clearly has similar opinions, hence their blanket ban on exporting drugs for use in executions. The ACLU and the EU clearly agree on that and adopt broadly similar positions on the idea of executions generally. Both are opposed to them on general principle, as are fellow critics of capital punishment such as Amnesty International.
Charles Warner was condemned in 1999 for a truly horrific crime, the rape and murder of Adrianna Waller, daughter of roommate Shonda Waller. His guilt is undisputable, his lack of remorse clear and unmistakable. Shonda Waller has since publicly opposed his execution, stating in an interview that: ‘My daughter’s memory lies with me. There’s nothing they can do by giving him the death penalty that’s going to honor anything.’ The dose of Midazolam is to be doubled after the Lockett debacle and officials firmly expect their many revised procedures will see as trouble-free a death as could be expected.
Johnny Shane Kormondy was, according to authorities, the leader of a 1993 three-man home invasion that left Cecilia McAdam raped and her husband Gary murdered. It isn’t customary to identify the victim of a rape except when, as in this case, the victim themselves has already identified themselves and gone on record. Cecilia McAdams has done so. His involvement in the crime is equally undisputed and he also has a long criminal record prior to the crime for which he will die.
Johnny Shane Kormondy died at 8:16pm Florida time via a Midazolam-Vecuronium Bromide-Potassium Chloride cocktail, what inmates in Oklahoma refer to with grim humor s the ‘Happy Hour.’ The execution ran smoothly and seemingly without incident.. The execution was delayed by two hours by a late appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court that was eventually denied. Kormondy is the 21st inmate executed under Gov. Rick Scott. The same number of prisoners were put to death under former Gov. Jeb Bush. The death penalty was reinstated in Florida in 1979, beginning with the electrocution of murderer John Spenkelink (also described by some as having gone disastrously wrong).
Charles Warner died at 7:28pm Oklahoma time. Apparently it was a far more standard execution compared to that of Clayton Lockett or Joseph Wood although Warner did utter the words ‘My body is on fire’ and ‘They poked me five times. It hurts. It feels like acid’ which strongly indicate that the vastly increased dose of Midazolam has, once again, failed to do its job and properly sedate an inmate before the other drugs were injected. The increasing difficulties that States are having with lethal injection has led to States considering reinstating former methods of execution (as with Missouri considering re-introducing the gas chamber and Utah possibly re-introducing the firing squad). Tennessee has reached back into the death penalty’s past and dusted off ‘Old Sparky’, it’s once regularly-used electric chair. Death penalty opponents oppose this also, while lethal injection’s supporters claim that it’s the meddling of anti-death penalty activists with drug supplies that have forced these retrograde steps in the first place.
The US Supreme Court is deeply and, perhaps, bitterly divided over the issue. In their vote on Warner’s final petition the Justices were split 5-4 in favour of the execution going ahead with four Justices (Sotemayor, Ginsberg, Breyer and Kagen) dissenting. Sotemayor went further than simply dissenting. She stated: ‘I am deeply troubled by this evidence suggesting that midazolam cannot constitutionally be used as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection protocol. It is true that we give deference to the district courts. But at some point we must question their findings of fact, unless we are to abdicate our role of ensuring that no clear error has been committed.’
It seems that the lethal injection saga, like the death penalty debate of which it is a part, is destined to run and run, long after the executions of Charles Warner and Johnny Shane Kormondy will have long been forgotten.