Expert testifies Okla. death row prisoners likely felt 'extreme pain' during executions

March 3 (UPI) -- An expert of anesthesiology has testified in trial challenging Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol that a prisoner the state executed last month was likely in "extreme pain."

Gail Van Norman, a professor at the University of Washington who has trained anesthesiology students for 36 years, told the court Wednesday that Gilbert Postelle attempted to make a fist after prison officials declared him unconscious during the lethal injection process. The state executed him Feb. 17 for killing four people in 2008.


"It was a purposeful movement," Van Norman said, according to The Oklahoman.

She said she believed with "virtual medical certainty" that Postelle, along with the state's three other most recent executed prisoners "experienced extreme pain and suffering."

Van Norman's testimony comes as part of a federal lawsuit filed by a group of Oklahoma death row prisoners challenging the state's lethal injection protocol.


Attorneys for the prisoners rested their case Wednesday, KOTV-TV in Oklahoma City reported. Witnesses from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections were expected to testify on behalf of the state later in the week.

The state announced Feb. 13, 2020, that it plans to resume executions, nearly six years after the use of an incorrect drug led to the botched execution of a convicted murderer.

Gov. Kevin Stitt said that after mulling the option of using nitrogen gas to cary out executions, the state has now found a "reliable supply of drugs" to resume lethal injections.

Oklahoma's lethal injection protocol came under scrutiny in 2014 when Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack amid complications during his execution.

Autopsy reports released a year later indicated Oklahoma corrections officials used the wrong drug -- potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride -- during the process. Lockett complained of a burning sensation and attempted to raise his head and speak after doctors declared he was unconscious.

The same incorrect drug was delivered to corrections officials for use in the planned 2015 execution of Richard Glossip. Former Gov. Mary Fallin called off Glossip's execution with a last-minute, indefinite stay after she learned of the discrepancy.


Oklahoma carried out one other execution after Lockett's, that of Charles Warner in January 2015, before resuming executions in 2021.

After Warner's execution, the state had an unofficial moratorium on executions as it attempted to secure a supply of lethal injection drugs. Oklahoma uses a three-drug cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

Van Norman testified Wednesday that midazolam, which is supposed to make the execution painless, doesn't actually numb the pain. She compared it to anti-anxiety medications Valium and Xanax.

Instead, she said midazolam together with the muscle relaxant vecuronium bromide, leave the prisoners unable to express pain. She also noted that documentation from Postelle's execution listed "rocuronium" was used instead of "vecuronium bromide."

"We can't rule out that the wrong drug was given," she said.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections said the mistake was a transcription error and that the correct drugs were given to Postelle.

State attorneys took issue with Van Norman's testimony relying on media accounts of Postelle's execution.

Executions in the United States have undergone changes in recent years after states started running out of the essential lethal injection drug pentobarbital. The European Union in 2011 voted to prohibit the sale of the drug and seven other barbiturates to the United States for use in torture or executions. Other pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell drugs for lethal injection purposes outright, and some will only sell if their name is kept confidential.


Now states are being forced to use new drug cocktails, scramble to restock their stores of drugs and review their lethal injection policies.

In 2018, Oklahoma's attorney general's office announced it would use nitrogen gas inhalation as its primary method of execution. Officials, though, had difficulty finding a manufacturer to sell a method for administering the gas for an execution. Additionally, state law says nitrogen hypoxia may be used for executions only if drugs for lethal injections are unavailable.

In addition to Postelle, Oklahoma has put to death three prisoners since its resumption of executions, including John Grant on Oct. 28, Bigler Stouffer on Dec. 8 and Donald Grant on Jan. 27.

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