(CNN)Oklahoma will soon begin executing death row inmates at a pace of about one man per month, with plans to put to death 25 prisoners over the next two years despite cries by critics and experts who point not only to outstanding questions of the mental fitness or possible innocence of some but also the state's recent history of botched lethal injections.
Oklahoma, with a history of botched lethal injections, prepares to start executing a man a month
"It's just yet one more reckless move by Oklahoma," Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor, told CNN of the state's scheduled execution timetable, which she said is in line with its staunch, decadeslong record of capital punishment. "If there was going to be any state that was going to do something so obviously irresponsible and unjust ... it would be the state of Oklahoma, given the history."
James Coddington is the first scheduled to be executed on August 25. He would have been followed about a month later by Richard Glossip, who has maintained his innocence and on Tuesday got a 60-day stay of execution so an appeals court can complete its review of his petition for a new hearing.
Twenty-three more men are set to be executed through 2024, and when the executions are complete, more than half the 43 inmates convicted and sentenced to death in Oklahoma are due to have been killed.
"The family members of these loved ones have waited decades for justice," Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor said, referring to the families of the condemned men's victims, in a July 1 statement as the executions dates were set. "They are courageous and inspiring in their continued expressions of love for the ones they lost.
"My office stands beside them as they take this next step in the journey that the murderers forced upon them," he said.
"Oklahomans overwhelmingly voted in 2016 to preserve the death penalty as a consequence for the most heinous murders," the attorney general said. "I'm certain that justice and safety for all of us drove that vote."
Oklahoma's proposed series of executions follows similar sprees in Arkansas in 2017 and by the US government under the Trump administration. But experts say these undertakings are anomalies, standing in contrast to the continued decline of the death penalty in America in recent years.
Oklahoma's execution docket is a particularly troubling prospect, given the state's "recent history with capital punishment has been characterized by botched executions," according to Death Penalty Information Center. While those can be cases in which an inmate suffers inordinately, experts use "botched" to describe any execution that deviates from officials' prescribed protocol for a given method -- what Austin Sarat, author of "Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution," said might be called "standard operating procedure."
And carrying out a series of death sentences in quick succession could raise the chances of a botched execution, experts said.
"When a state or the federal government makes a commitment to execute people in bulk, to do it over a period of time in a way that doesn't give it a lot of time to adjust to errors and problems, that political momentum is often hard to resist," Sarat told CNN. It can encourage "a kind of carelessness ... and Oklahoma is not a national model of scrupulousness in the world of lethal injection."
In 2014, Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett writhed and moaned during his execution by lethal injection for 43 minutes before suffering a heart attack. Months later, witnesses reported Charles Warner said, "My body is on fire," as he was put to death in the state. And last October, after a yearslong moratorium on the state's death penalty spurred in part by the Warner case, John Grant convulsed and vomited on the gurney, per witnesses.
"I think that the problems that were present when Lockett was executed remain present in Oklahoma today," said Sarat, a professor of law and politics at Amherst College. "And the Grant execution is a testimony to that fact."
Pointing to Lockett's and Warner's executions, a number of the inmates now slated for execution sued corrections officials in federal court, claiming in part that Oklahoma's three-drug lethal injection protocol was unconstitutional. Midazolam, one of the drugs used in the protocol, would not render them adequately unconscious, they argued in part, and could put them at risk of severe pain as they died, violating their Eighth Amendment protection against "cruel and unusual punishments."
But the judge ruled in June against the inmates, citing the US Supreme Court's ruling in Bucklew v. Precythe, in which Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the Eighth Amendment "does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death."
The inmates' attorneys responded with claims the judge had ignored "the overwhelming evidence presented at trial that Oklahoma's execution protocol ... creates an unacceptable risk that prisoners will experience severe pain and suffering."
Oklahoma's attorney general later that month requested the execution dates.
Like most states, Oklahoma primarily uses lethal injection to carry out its executions. But today, the "very meaning of 'lethal injection,' or the thing that it designates, is now hard to specify from state to state," said Sarat.