MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Today, Oklahoma's attorney general agreed to a six-month stay of execution for an inmate who was scheduled to die next week. That delay is so the state can conclude its investigation into last week's botched execution of Clayton Lockett. He died of a heart attack after his lethal injection ran into problems and was stopped. As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, the halt in executions is also focusing attention on the legal process that set up those events.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Charles Warner will receive a stay while Oklahoma investigates its execution protocols and issues a report. This afternoon, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt agreed he would not oppose the stay. Dianne Clay is Pruitt's spokesperson.
DIANNE CLAY: At this point, we're just going to let the review run its course. And the attorney general has said at this point he believes no executions should occur in Oklahoma until that review is complete.
GOODWYN: Although most of the country just became aware of issues with Oklahoma's capital punishment protocols last week after Clayton Lockett's bungled execution, Lockett's lawyers had been worried for months. That's because in January, two condemned men in different states but injected with the same new drug cocktail endured executions that went badly. Susanna Gattoni was unable to keep her client, Clayton Lockett, from suffering a similar fate last week.
SUSANNA GATTONI: We were alarmed by a Ohio execution that was actually the same protocol that was used for Mr. Lockett. We were alarmed by an execution that happened in the state of Oklahoma, where he said I feel my whole body burning. We were alarmed by the fact that source of the drugs was secret.
GOODWYN: Gattoni not only represents Lockett but also Charles Warner, next in line on Oklahoma's death row. Gattoni says Oklahoma's secrecy statute, passed in 2011, represented a serious legal obstacle. Without knowing what was in the drug cocktail or who made it, her clients couldn't file a constitutional claim that Oklahoma's method of execution had become cruel and unusual, so Gattoni went after the secrecy statute.
GATTONI: We filed a civil action saying this secrecy statute is unconstitutional, meaning you can't raise an 8th Amendment claim if you don't even know what they're using.
GOODWYN: In late March, Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish agreed, ruling Oklahoma's secrecy statute was unconstitutional. I do not think this is even a close call, Parrish wrote. The problem for Lockett and Warner was they only had a month left to live. And this is where Oklahoma's legal system got messy. Oklahoma's highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, refused to grant Lockett and Warner a stay of execution. That meant the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which hears civil and constitutional matters, would not get the opportunity to hear the secrecy case. This so angered the Supreme Court it responded by doing something unprecedented. University of Oklahoma law professor Maria Kolar.
MARIA KOLAR: The Oklahoma Supreme Court itself, for the first time in its history, issues a stay of execution.
GOODWYN: To say this was not a politically popular decision is an understatement. Oklahoma executes more prisoners per capita than any other state. Members of the state legislature vowed to impeach every single supreme court justice that voted for the stay. Governor Mary Fallon charged the court with exceeding its jurisdiction and indicated she would not be bound. The backlash was so intense that just two days later, the Oklahoma Supreme Court unanimously cleared the way for Lockett and Warner's execution. Again, Professor Kolar.
KOLAR: I have no idea what happened in those two days. It is a short period of time. It's certainly an unusually short period of time for a court to come to a full resolution of issues of this scope.
GOODWYN: But the subsequent mess made with Clayton Lockett's execution has cast a different light on the legal decisions that came before. Pending the Court of Criminal Appeals' approval, Oklahoma will now take the next six months to review its execution protocols. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.