OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) - The worsening shortage of lethal injection drugs in Oklahoma supports postponement of two executions for at least a month, the state's highest criminal court ruled.
In a mostly unanimous opinion Tuesday, the five-member Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals vacated the March 20 execution date of Clayton Lockett and March 27 execution date of Charles Warner. Lockett is now scheduled to be executed on April 22 and Warner on April 29.
Lockett was convicted in 2000 for the rape and murder of Stephanie Neiman, 19. Warner was convicted in 1999 for the rape and murder of Adrianna Waller, the 11-month-old daughter of his girlfriend at the time.
Though the inmates sought to stay their executions pending the outcome of their civil suits, the court found their challenge moot in light of the drug shortage. In their suit, the inmates argue the state is trying to buy drugs of unknown content from unlicensed compounding pharmacies.
Three drugs are needed for the state's lethal injections: pentobarbital to knock the inmate unconscious, vecuronium to stop breathing and potassium chloride to stop the heart. The state admitted in a March 17 filing that its "Herculean" efforts to obtain the necessary drugs have failed.
"The attorney general's attestations give this court no confidence that the state will be able to procure the necessary drugs before the scheduled executions are to be carried out," Judge David Lewis wrote for the court. "Based on this new information, we find the execution dates for the appellants Lockett and Warner must be vacated and reset in order to allow the state of Oklahoma time to procure the necessary execution drugs or to adopt a new execution protocol."
Failure by the state to get the drugs will require a revised execution protocol, which in turn will lead to more lawsuits and requests for stays of execution, the court found.
The three-page opinion does not address the merits of Lockett and Warner's claims.
Judge Gary Lumpkin said he agreed that the inmates failed to meet their burden for an emergency stay, but wrote in a partial dissent that the court should have addressed the merits.
By not filing a second application for post-conviction relief and by suing in civil court, the inmates are trying to "side-step the established legal method of address the issue presented in an attempt to find a friendlier forum to raise issues otherwise foreclosed under precedent," Lumpkinwrote. "The appellants have not made the requisite showing for an emergency stay of execution because they have raised only speculation that problems may occur in the carrying out of their legal sentence."
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt criticized the court's ruling, promising accountability for the inmates' crimes.
"I am upset that justice is once again delayed for Stephanie Neiman, young Adrianna Waller and their families," he said in a statement. "This delay is not about the facts of the case, nor does it seek to overturn the convictions of these two murderers. Instead, it's about outside forces employing threats, intimidation and coercion to keep the state of Oklahoma from imposing the punishment handed down for these heinous crimes."
Assistant federal public defender Madeline Cohen meanwhile told KFOR-TV that the Tuesday's ruling came to her as a relief.
"We hope that no execution will go forward until we are able to obtain full information about how Oklahoma intends to conduct those executions, including the source of its execution drugs," Cohen said.
Michael Taylor, 47, was executed
in Missouri last month after losing his multifaceted legal challenge to the state's planned use of pentobarbital in his lethal injection.