The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Monday stayed the executions of two death row inmates, just one day before one of the men was scheduled for lethal injection.
Clayton Derrell Lockett’s execution had been set for 6 p.m Tuesday.
In March, a district judge agreed with attorneys representing Lockett, 38, and Charles Frederick Warner, 46, that it was unconstitutional for the state to keep secret its source of the drugs it will use to execute the two men.
The state has yet to reveal its source, pending a ruling on their appeal to the district court decision. Lockett and Warner have been asking for a stay until their case is fully litigated, which the state Supreme Court granted in its ruling.
The 5-4 ruling came after the state Supreme Court had twice told the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals it had the jurisdiction to delay the executions. Both times, the criminal appeals court denied it had that authority. In total, the request for a stay bounced between four different state and federal courts.
“Here, the Court of Criminal Appeals’ refused to exercise its rightfully placed jurisdiction, and left this Court in an awkward position,” the justices wrote in their decision. “We can deny jurisdiction, or we can leave the appellants with no access to the courts for resolution of their “grave” constitutional claims. As uncomfortable as this matter makes us, we refuse to violate our oaths of office and to leave the appellants with no access to the courts, their constitutionally guaranteed measure.”
Attorneys for the inmates expressed relief Monday afternoon.
“I’m glad that they finally did what they were forced to do,” said Seth Day, one of the attorneys representing the inmates. Day was worried the state was going to proceed with Lockett’s execution before the case was fully resolved.
Lockett was convicted of the 1999 murder of Stephanie Neiman, 19, in Perry.
Lockett shot Neiman twice with a shotgun before having an accomplice, Shawn Mathis, bury her alive.
“I could see the dirt coming in the air as she was coughing,” Lockett said in a taped confession. “So, he kept on putting dirt over her and everything, then I couldn’t hear her coughing or choking no more. It was muffled. Then, I heard him patting the dirt down.”
Mathis, 41, is serving life for his involvement in Neiman’s murder.
Warner was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of his live-in girlfriend’s 11 month-old daughter, Adrianna Waller.
At Lockett’s final clemency hearing before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, Neiman’s parents, Steve and Susie Neiman, said they were supporters of the death penalty and believed it should be used in this case, but the couple declined to comment on whether the state owes their daughter’s killer a painless death.
The source of lethal drugs case has helped fuel an ongoing nationwide debate on the use of the death penalty, and it has created some animosity between lawyers and the Oklahoma attorney general’s office.
The attorney general’s office has argued keeping the name of the drug supplier secret is a necessary safety measure and has applauded denials for the stays, seeing them as delays of justice.
In a letter sent Monday to attorneys Susanna Gattoni and Day, who represent both inmates, Attorney General Scott Pruitt suggested the two lawyers were less interested in the rights of their clients and more about abolishing the death penalty.
“I can only conclude by your failure to file an Eight Amendment challenge that you doubt it would be successful and acknowledge that the DOC protocol passes constitutional muster,” Pruitt wrote. “You have, instead, settled on a strategy focused on creating tension between our state’s highest courts and using the media to create public doubts about the integrity of the execution process. At this point, I must say I wonder if your ultimate objective is not to zealously represent your clients but to simply garner sympathy for the anti-death penalty cause by casting a shadow on the process and making a spectacle on Tuesday of what should be the most solemn of occasions.”
Day contends he and Gattoni are trying to ensure their clients have all the information necessary to decide whether or not their constitutional rights may be violated.
“This case has always been about secrecy, and that can be seen from our filings,” Day wrote. “Despite the claims from the AG, to date, Appellants have received no certifications, testing data, medical opinions, or other evidence to support the State’s insistence that these drugs are safe, or to prove that they were acquired legally.”
State Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie said the stay is in place, but the department is preparing for any eventuality.
Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for Pruitt, said, “The Oklahoma Supreme Court has acted in an extraordinary and unprecedented manner, resulting in a constitutional crisis for our state. The AG’s office is trying to determine the appropriate response to address these issues.”