Expert suspects last execution in Oklahoma was extremely painful

An expert in anesthesiology has testified in a trial challenging Oklahoma state 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 anesthesia students for 36 years, said in court that Gilbert Postelle tried to make a fist after prison officials declared him unconscious during the lethal injection.

She said she was convinced with “near medical certainty” that Postelle, like the state’s three other most recently executed prisoners, “experienced extreme pain and suffering.”

Van Norman’s testimony is part of a federal lawsuit filed by a group of Oklahoma death row prisoners challenging the state’s lethal injection protocol. Oklahoma uses a 3-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 the anti-anxiety drugs Valium and Xanax. Instead, she said midazolam, along with the muscle relaxant vecuronium bromide, rendered prisoners unable to express pain.

She also pointed out that Postelle’s execution records used “rocuronium” instead of “vecuronium bromide.” “We cannot rule out the possibility that the wrong drug was administered,” she said. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections said it was a clerical error and that Postelle was administered the correct medication.

Executions in the United States have changed in recent years after states ran out of pentobarbital, a drug essential for lethal injections. The European Union voted in 2011 to ban the sale of the drug and seven other barbiturates to the United States for use in torture or executions.

Other drug companies have refused to sell drugs for lethal injection altogether, and some are willing to sell them only if their names are kept confidential. Now states are being forced to use new drug cocktails, stock up on their drug supplies, and review their lethal injection policies.