Lethal-Injection Drug Mix-up

By ThinkReliability Staff

On January 15, 2015, a prisoner was executed by lethal injection in Oklahoma. On October 8, the autopsy report, showed that prisoner had been injected with potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride as intended.

This was the first injection to take place in the state since a prisoner took 43 minutes to die after the drugs were administered in April 2014 (see our previous blog about this execution).  After that, further executions were stayed.

Just hours prior to the first execution scheduled since January, Department of Corrections personnel realized they were sent potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride and that execution was called off.  Shortly afterwards, an Oklahoma court granted an indefinite stay for the prisoners who were scheduled for execution.

While there is ongoing debate about whether the change adversely impacted the speed or humaneness of the execution, it certainly caused great concern about the ability of the state of Oklahoma to correctly perform an execution.  Says an attorney, “The state’s disclosure that it used potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride during the execution of Charles Warner yet again raises serious questions about the ability of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to carry out executions.”

Along with the concern for ability to perform future executions, there is potential safety impact regarding the prisoner’s suffering, as well as the production impact resulting from the delay in future executions.  The ongoing investigation will also impact goals because of the resources required.  This investigation will attempt to determine how the wrong drugs were used in the execution.

In case of the execution scheduled for September, the wrong drug was placed in the syringe used to inject the prisoner, and there was an ineffective verification of the drugs.  It’s unclear whether there was an attempt at verification that the drugs being used were correct.  If there was such a check, verification may have been difficult because records show that the syringe was labeled potassium chloride (the desired drug).

Department of Corrections records also show that the state received potassium acetate instead of the desired potassium chloride.  It seems that the potassium acetate was accidentally delivered from the supplier (there doesn’t appear to be a need for potassium acetate).  According to the prisons director, the supplier believed that the drugs were interchangeable.  In general, the oversight of suppliers who provide lethal injection drugs is limited – many states refuse to disclose their suppliers and many suppliers are compounding pharmacies, which are subject to less regulation.

Oklahoma does have several different combinations and substitutions of drugs allowable for executions, but there is no approved substitute for potassium chloride.  This, and recent changes to suppliers because so many refuse to supply drugs for lethal injection, may have led to some confusion.

It’s likely that solutions, or changes to the execution protocol may not be discussed until after the investigation is complete.  A completely different type of execution may be considered: in April 2014 Oklahoma approved nitrogen gas the backup method for executions if lethal injection could not be used.  Based on all the recent issues and concerns, that new method may be under consideration.