OKLAHOMA CITY - A sharply divided Oklahoma Supreme Court on Monday stayed the execution of two death row inmates who have challenged the secrecy surrounding the source of the state's lethal injection drugs.
In a 5-4 decision, the state's highest court issued the stays just one day before death row inmate Clayton Lockett was scheduled to be executed for the 1999 shooting death of 19-year-old Stephanie Nieman.
The second inmate, Charles Warner, was convicted in the 1997 death of his roommate's 11-month-old daughter. He was scheduled to die on April 29.
Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish last month struck down the state's execution law in a ruling that said the protocol that prevented the inmates from seeking information about the drugs used in lethal injections violated their rights under the state constitution.
The state changed its execution protocol on March 21 to allow five different potential drug combinations for execution by lethal injection. The state informed lawyers for the inmates on April 1 that the inmates would be executed using a combination of midazolam, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride never before used in the state. Executions have been conducted using the drug combination in Florida with lower doses.
But a request for a stay filed Monday said the inmates "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."
Oklahoma and other states that have the death penalty have been scrambling for substitute drugs or new sources for drugs for lethal injections after major drug makers - many based in Europe with longtime opposition to the death penalty - stopped selling to prisons and corrections departments.
On Friday, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals denied the inmates' request for a stay in spite of a ruling by the state's Supreme Court earlier in the week that the appeals court had the authority to issue a stay or reschedule an execution.
"The 'rule of necessity' now demands that we step forward," the Supreme Court's majority opinion says. "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."