An expert who witnessed Oklahoma’s most recent execution testified Wednesday that inmate Gilbert Ray Postelle tried to make a fist after being declared unconscious.
“It was a purposeful movement,” Dr. Gail Van Norman testified in Oklahoma City federal court.
She called the movement evidence he was still aware and in horrific pain.
Van Norman is a professor at the University of Washington who has trained anesthesiology students for 36 years. She also regularly placed patients under general anesthesia for surgery before the pandemic.
Her testimony came at a trial over Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol. More than two dozen death row inmates are asking U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot to find the protocol in violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Oklahoma’s current protocol involves the intravenous injection of a sedative, midazolam, followed by a paralytic, vecuronium bromide, and then the heart-stopping drug, potassium chloride.
Inmates are complaining specifically that the first drug, midazolam, doesn’t work.
Van Norman was hired by the attorneys for the inmates to give her expert opinion and to witness Postelle’s execution. She is being paid $500 an hour for her testimony.
Postelle, 35, was executed Feb. 17 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
He was convicted of murdering four people on Memorial Day 2005 outside a trailer in Del City. He was sentenced to death for two of the murders and to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the other two.
Media witnesses described the execution as without incident, and Attorney General John O’Connor said it was carried out “with zero complications.”
Van Norman, though, said she saw Postelle move his fingers in reaction to the second drug being pushed into his veins.
She also noted media witnesses saw tears.
She told the judge that tearing is a sign of extreme stress and an anesthesiologist would do something about it if seen during an operation.
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Inmates John Marion Grant, Bigler Jobe “Bud” Stouffer II and Donald Grant were experiencing severe pain and suffering during their recent executions, too, she also told the judge.
“In my opinion, it’s virtually certain they were,” she testified.
She came up with that opinion after reviewing eyewitness accounts, EKG strips, prison logs and post-mortem photos of John Grant still on the gurney.
She said she based her opinion on her knowledge of how midazolam works. She contends the sedative is not capable of keeping people under if exposed to “noxious stimuli.”
She testified at length about the Oct. 28 execution of John Grant. His lethal injection was widely described as botched after media witnesses reported he repeatedly convulsed and vomited.
The Corrections Department downplayed those accounts and a state expert later said he had simply regurgitated while unconscious.
Van Norman testified the photos show vomit, not regurgitation, and are proof he was conscious at the time.
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The Corrections Department issued a statement after her testimony because of a notation on an EKG strip.
The notation reflected Postelle was given the wrong paralytic, rocuronium. The Corrections Department called it a transcription error.
“The transcription error was brought to the agency’s attention shortly after the Gilbert Postelle execution. The agency confirmed, through verification of documents and employees, the drug Vecuronium Bromide was the drug utilized,” the Corrections Department said.
“The drugs utilized were verified by staff members and a pharmacist multiple times prior to the scheduled date of execution, and then again hours prior to the execution.”
Oklahoma used the wrong heart-stopping drug in an execution in January 2015 and almost used it again months later.
The Sept. 30, 2015, execution of Richard Glossip was called off after a doctor involved in the process discovered the mistake.
Much of the trial so far has involved tedious testimony about studies on midazolam. A decision by the judge is not expected for weeks.
The judge has been told the second drug can cause sensations of drowning if an inmate is still conscious. He was told the third drug would make a conscious inmate feel like his veins are on fire.