Death row case puts Oklahoma in legal bind

Associated Press
This photo combo of images provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections shows Clayton Lockett, left, and Charles Warner. Lockett and Warner, two death-row inmates who want to know the source of drugs that will be used to execute them, have placed Oklahoma’s two highest courts at odds and prompted aggravated members of the Legislature to call for the impeachment of Oklahoma Supreme Court justices. (AP Photo/Oklahoma Department of Corrections)
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This photo combo of images provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections shows Clayton Lockett, left, and Charles Warner. Lockett and Warner, two death-row inmates who want to know the source of drugs that will be used to execute them, have placed Oklahoma’s two highest courts at odds and prompted aggravated members of the Legislature to call for the impeachment of Oklahoma Supreme Court justices. (AP Photo/Oklahoma Department of Corrections)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Two death row inmates who want to know the source of drugs that will be used to execute them have placed Oklahoma's two highest courts at odds and prompted calls for impeaching justices on the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

The state's high court delayed the inmates' execution Monday even though the judges are restricted to ruling on civil matters. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which handles cases from inmates, said it wasn't authorized to weigh in on the request for a stay because the inmates challenged the execution procedures in civil court, not criminal.

Gov. Mary Fallin has halted at least one inmate's execution to ensure he won't be put to death before his day in court, but believes the Supreme Court went too far in issuing the stay. Republican Attorney General Scott Pruitt has declared the state is in the midst of a "constitutional crisis." And the justices so provoked some in the Republican-controlled Legislature that one member ordered articles of impeachment be drafted for the five justices in the majority, saying Wednesday they violated their oaths of office and engaged in a "willful neglect of duty."

But the inmates and their lawyers have succeeded where others have failed: using questions about drug secrecy to — at least temporarily — shut down Oklahoma's death chamber. While courts in Missouri and Texas have rejected claims that secretive death-row procedures could expose inmates to painful executions, Oklahoma inmates Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner benefited simply by asking the question in a civil court, not a criminal one.

"People may try to couch it as a criminal case, but in no way is it criminal," defense attorney Susanna Gattoni said. "We never challenged the underlying sentences. We never challenged whether it was legal to execute through lethal injection. All we challenged was the law that kept the secrecy."

Gattoni also said the defense attorneys never expected their lawsuit to lead to the current standoff.

Pending the resolution of the lawsuit, which was filed in February, the two inmates asked for and received a delayed death sentence — for the second time. The first occurred last month when the Court of Criminal Appeals determined the state might not be able to secure the drugs needed for the execution.

This time, the Court of Criminal Appeals said it couldn't weigh in on the stay request because it didn't have the power, so the high court said a "rule of necessity" led to its 5-4 decision.

In the majority opinion, the justices said they feared Lockett and Warner could die despite a lower court finding that they were entitled to know who made the lethal three-drug.

"As uncomfortable as this matter makes us, we refuse to violate our oaths and to leave appellants with no access to the courts, their constitutionally guaranteed measure," the justices wrote.

Justice Steven Taylor dissented, writing that the inmates' lawsuit involves issues "inextricably intertwined" with criminal law and has no business before the Supreme Court.

"The appellants have maneuvered this court right where they set out to put us and that is, for the first time in this court's relevant history, in the middle of a death penalty appeal," Taylor wrote. "We have never been here before and we have no jurisdiction to be here now."

Former state trooper and current Republican Rep. Mike Christian set the wheels in motion on the articles of impeachment for the justices in the majority.

"It's unfortunate we're at this point," the Oklahoma City lawmaker said, "but now that we are here we must enforce our state's system of checks and balances to get our judicial branch under control to reverse these terrible decisions."

Rep. Aaron Stiles, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he's among those who think the Supreme Court overstepped its authority by intervening in what he believes is a criminal case.

"There is no reasonable rationale of this being anywhere near the realm of a civil case," said Stiles, R-Norman. "If five of the nine people we elect are supposed to be guardians of our constitution, and they can't handle something that is law school Day No. 1, then I wonder if they should continue being Supreme Court justices."

The resolution seeking the impeachment of the justices, even if it were granted a hearing, would have no immediate impact on the proceedings in the inmates' lawsuit.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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