Okla. Board of Corrections endorses director despite problematic executions
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has been less forthcoming with a full-throated endorsement of Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton
By Sean Murphy
OKLAHOMA CITY — The head of Oklahoma's prison system, whose tenure has been marred by problems with three scheduled lethal injections and now a grand jury inquiry into those complications, received a vote of confidence this week from the agency's governing board.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has been less forthcoming with a full-throated endorsement of Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton. After learning last month that Oklahoma's last execution in January was carried out using the wrong drug, Fallin said she wants to wait and see what's uncovered by Attorney General Scott Pruitt's investigation before publicly backing Patton.
The position was reiterated Thursday by Fallin's spokesman, Alex Weintz, when asked whether the governor still had confidence in Patton's ability to run the agency effectively.
"We have confidence that we're going to get better as an agency and a state government, and one of the ways we're going to do that is supporting the attorney general's inquiry and waiting for the results of that," Weintz said. "Our interest isn't in finger pointing or in blame."
Only the Board of Corrections, a panel composed entirely of Fallin appointees, has the authority to fire the director. But Patton has drawn the ire of some lawmakers who have been critical of his decision to remove state inmates from county jails and for not meeting with lawmakers at the Capitol.
"I understand he's got a difficult job, but to refuse to meet with legislators isn't making his job any easier for him," said Rep. Bobby Cleveland, a Republican from Slaughterville who has two major prisons in his district. "Something's got to change, because right now things aren't working."
Fallin was highly supportive of Patton when he was hired to take over the department in January 2014 from its former director, Justin Jones, who clashed with Fallin over her push to use more private prisons.
But just a few months into Patton's tenure, the Department of Corrections botched a lethal injection that left an inmate writhing on the gurney and moaning before Patton tried unsuccessfully to stop the execution. Clayton Lockett was declared dead 43 minutes after the procedure began. An investigation into the execution cited a problem with an intravenous line, but also said a lack of training and proper equipment played a role.
Patton vowed to revamp the execution protocol and increase training, and the state's next lethal injection, in January, appeared to have gone smoothly until an autopsy report later revealed the inmate, Charles Warner, was injected with a drug that was not part of the state's three-drug protocol.
And in September, inmate Richard Glossip was just hours away from being executed when prison officials revealed that same drug from January, potassium acetate, was sent to the prison instead of the proper drug, potassium chloride.
The problems with the Warner and Glossip executions have led to a moratorium on all executions until his office "gains confidence that DOC can carry out executions in accordance with the execution protocol."
Patton has since been ordered to appear before Pruitt's multicounty grand jury, along with the agency's general counsel and Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Anita Trammell, who has since announced her retirement.
Patton has declined to speak publicly about the probe or the state's execution procedures since Pruitt announced his investigation, but issued a statement Friday thanking the Board of Corrections for their endorsement.
"I am confident in my experience and ability to lead this agency moving forward, which is what I will continue to do," Patton said.