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Executions resume in Oklahoma as judge deems lethal injection protocol constitutional

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today Oklahoma carried out the first of 25 executions planned over the next two years. A recent ruling by a federal judge paved the way for these executions. The court said the state's lethal injection protocol is constitutional and not cruel and unusual punishment. Reporter Chris Polansky of member station KWGS in Tulsa was a witness today. And we'll note that we are going to be talking about some vivid descriptions of executions. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS POLANSKY, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Who was put to death today?

POLANSKY: The man's name was James Coddington. He was convicted of murder in 1997 and given the death penalty. He suffered from drug addiction. He asked his friend and coworker, Albert Hale, for money to buy drugs. Hale said no, and Coddington bludgeoned him to death. Coddington said Hale was one of his only friends at that time and that he felt great remorse ever since that day.

SHAPIRO: And there was uncertainty about whether this execution would actually take place today. Tell us about that.

POLANSKY: Sure. So first, the legal backdrop - Oklahoma has a history of botched executions. And Coddington was one of more than a dozen plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit alleging the drug cocktail the state uses is cruel and unusual punishment - that it leaves inmates able to feel pain during executions. But in June, a judge ruled against them. He cited a 2018 Supreme Court case saying the Eighth Amendment doesn't guarantee a prisoner a painless death. So the state set 25 execution dates. And with this execution, the state Pardon and Parole Board actually recommended clemency. It wasn't until yesterday that the governor denied that recommendation.

SHAPIRO: So you witnessed the execution today. Tell us about what happened.

POLANSKY: Sure. So there were no visible convulsions or any other signs that I could see, as a witness, that anything went wrong. They did use the same drug cocktail that was at the center of that lawsuit, which includes a drug, midazolam, that other states have also challenged.

So everyone was watching to see if there would be any problems like there have been in the past. For instance, seven years ago, a moratorium was placed on executions in Oklahoma because of a series of botched ones. One man was administered the wrong drugs. He said he felt like he was on fire. In another, a misplaced IV led to a man writhing on the gurney for 45 minutes. And then, when they resumed last October, an inmate violently convulsed and vomited after the drugs were given. The chaplain in the chamber today with Coddington spoke with me afterwards. He didn't notice anything amiss, and the whole thing was done in about 16 minutes.

SHAPIRO: And this was the first of about two dozen executions that are planned. Tell us what's likely to happen next.

POLANSKY: Yeah, that's right. So there was another scheduled for September for a man named Richard Glossip. You may have heard of him because he's now eaten three last meals. In one instance, his execution was called off at the last minute after it was discovered they had the wrong drugs. Now, the governor has granted a stay for his fourth execution date. Glossip's lawyers want to introduce new evidence they say will prove his innocence. But then, in October, roughly one execution is scheduled every month for over two years. Today, the state corrections director told us he is confident the state can perform these executions without problems. That's something we'll be keeping our eye on.

SHAPIRO: That is reporter Chris Polansky of member station KWGS in Tulsa, Okla. Thank you for your reporting.

POLANSKY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris Polansky
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