A divided Oklahoma Supreme Court has granted two death row inmates a reprieve, while throwing the state's legal system into a tizzy on how to administer the death penalty.
In a 5-4 ruling, the state Supreme Court ordered a stay in Tuesday's planned execution of Clayton Lockett, convicted in the 1999 shooting of a 19-year-old woman. The court also ordered a stay in the April 29 scheduled execution of Charles Warner, convicted in the 1997 death of an 11-month-old girl.
In both cases, the court acted after lawyers for the inmates said they needed more information on the drugs the state planned to use to execute the prisoners. But the Supreme Court also said it acted because the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals denied a stay, saying it lacked authority.
"The 'rule of necessity' now demands that we step forward," according to the Supreme Court's majority opinion. "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."
The ruling has created some confusion, a spokeswoman for state Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt told the Los Angeles Times. The state is seeking a re-argument of the case, she said Tuesday.
"The Oklahoma Supreme Court has acted in an extraordinary and unprecedented manner, resulting in a constitutional crisis for our state," Pruitt said in a statement released after the court ruling.
In a letter to defense attorneys Susanna Gattoni and Seth Day, who represent both inmates, Pruitt suggested the two lawyers cared more about fighting the death penalty.
"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," Pruitt said in the letter. "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."
In a statement, the lawyers rejected the attorney general's complaints.
"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."
At the heart of the current legal battle is the question of secrecy. Oklahoma, like many states, has insisted it does not have to disclose what agents it uses to execute inmates while the inmates want to know whether any regime conforms to the Constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment.
Until 2010, most states used a three-drug cocktail, including an anesthetic and a paralyzing agent, to execute inmates. But some suppliers, particularly companies in European countries that have banned the death penalty, have come under public pressure and have stopped making the medications available for carrying out executions. That has touched off problems for many states, forcing them to seek other sources for drugs needed for executions.
Last month, Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish ruled that the state's secrecy laws were unconstitutional because they prevented the courts and inmates from getting needed information.
The state said 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 the inmates' lawyers sought more information on the drugs and their efficacy.
On Friday, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals denied the inmates' request for a stay, saying it lacked authority in the case. Earlier, the state Supreme Court had said the criminal court did have standing and on Monday issued its own stay of the executions.