Oklahoma Hired A New Warden After Botches, But Considered Execution Experience Irrelevant
After a string of execution mistakes and resignations, the state is replacing the personnel key to carrying out the death penalty in Oklahoma. But state officials say they view execution experience as "immaterial" in the hiring.
After a grand jury investigation found carelessness, secrecy, and ignorance led the Oklahoma Department of Corrections to multiple botched execution attempts, a department spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that a new prison warden’s execution experience was “immaterial” to his selection for the job.
Oklahoma officials pointed to no experience in the new warden's past with executions, and BuzzFeed News has been unable to find any evidence that the new warden has any experience with carrying out or overseeing death sentences.
On Wednesday, corrections head Joe Allbaugh, himself new to the position, announced the selection of Terry Royal to run the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Both the warden and the director have many responsibilities under the state's current execution procedures.
Neither Allbaugh or Royal appear to have any experience with executions.
When asked if Royal had any experience carrying out executions, a corrections spokesperson responded that "[t]he execution question is and was immaterial to his hiring."
Royal, who most recently ran the Lake Correctional Institution in Florida, has 25 years of corrections experience — but none in any prison that had responsibilities for carrying out executions.
Royal's appointment will still have to be approved by the Oklahoma Board of Corrections, which will meet in September. The Board is also expected to discuss the grand jury's findings at the meeting.
Asked why the department believed Royal’s experience or lack thereof was “immaterial,” spokesperson Terri Watkins told BuzzFeed News, "The warden under the protocol doesn’t have a role in executions. That is why execution experience is immaterial to the hiring."
Under the current protocol, however, the warden has significant responsibilities overseeing executions. The warden, along with another corrections employee, chooses which execution team members are retained and which are replaced.
The 34-page execution protocol closes out by stating that "[t]he wardens of Oklahoma State Penitentiary and Mabel Bassett Correctional Center are responsible for compliance with" the procedures.
Previously, the warden had also received the execution drugs, and was supposed to verify their contents. In fact, the grand jury report singled out the previous warden, Anita Trammell, who stepped down during the investigation into how the wrong execution drug was used in the 2015 execution of Charles Warner.
Earlier, in 2014, Oklahoma took 45 minutes to execute Clayton Lockett in what Trammell described as "a bloody mess." After an investigation run by the Department of Public Safety, which reports to the governor, the state was allowed to carry out another execution.
The state changed the protocol, however, giving the warden fewer responsibilities.
This time, in January 2015, they used the wrong drug with Warner. The mistake only became public when the state nearly used the same wrong drug in the following scheduled execution, in September of that year.
This time, the investigation into execution mistakes was conducted by a grand jury. The grand jury report placed much of the blame at the feet of Trammell and former corrections director Robert Patton.
Before the grand jury, Trammell also tried to argue that it wasn't her responsibility.
"Warden [Trammell] further testified [s]he was not responsible for what happened at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary facility as it related to executions, despite being the Oklahoma State Penitentiary's warden, because it was the Director's job," the grand jury wrote.
"There are just some things you ask questions about, and there's some things that you don't," Trammell told the grand jury. "I never asked questions about the process" of getting the drugs.
Trammell also told the grand jury that "there were lots of things that took place at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary that wasn't in the policy."
The grand jury report found that "Warden [Trammell] did not do [her] job and, consequently, failed the Department and the State as a whole."
The grand jury also wrote that "the Execution Protocol explicitly states the Warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary is responsible for compliance with the Preparation and Administration of Chemical provisions of the Execution Protocol."
Royal will inherit Trammell's execution responsibilities, provided the protocol isn't changed.
"With the director’s leadership and the rest of talented staff at the department, we will face challenges head-on to ensure the goals and mission of the facility and agency are met," Royal said in a statement. "I appreciate Director Allbaugh’s confidence in me to lead the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.”
None of the prisons Royal has worked at carried out executions. The Florida Department of Corrections did not respond to repeated questions about his experience, and the Indiana Department of Corrections, where Royal started his career, would not answer questions about its execution personnel.
Royal also spent time in Arizona, working at a minimum security private prison. Patton, the Oklahoma corrections director that resigned in the middle of the grand jury investigation, was the Division Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections while Royal was in Arizona. As such, Patton was overseeing a variety of things — including overseeing security assessments of the prison were Royal was warden.
The grand jury report noted that there was significant overlap between Arizona and Oklahoma's execution methods. Patton molded Oklahoma's protocol after Arizona's, and also hired the Arizona warden that ran the prison where a two-hour execution occurred.
Allbaugh, the head of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, also has no execution-related experience. This is his first job in corrections, in fact. Allbaugh previously served as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President George W. Bush.
When Allbaugh was selected earlier this year, the chair of the Board of Corrections, Kevin Gross, said it “might be interesting” to have someone without direct corrections experience run the prison system, according to the Tulsa World.