Schizophrenic Death Row Inmate Is Terrified His Execution Will Get Botched

Oklahoma’s first execution since its death penalty moratorium was lifted went horribly wrong. Donald Grant is scared the same will happen to him.

As he puts it, Donald Grant didn’t have a fighting chance. The 46-year-old inmate on Oklahoma’s death row was born “blue'': For the first 45 seconds of his life, his brain was starved of oxygen because his umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. The complication left Grant with intellectual disabilities and mental illness that went undiagnosed and untreated for decades. 


To make matters worse, Grant’s antisocial behavior—a result of his mental state—was mistaken for waywardness. His alcoholic father routinely beat his head with steel rods. He also remembers his uncles holding him down, while his father thrashed him with two-by-fours. 

For Grant, the abuse “opened up a world of violence—now I know how to give it, now I know how to hurt motherfuckers,” he said.

In 2001, Grant turned that violence outward: While robbing a La Quinta Inn for $200—the amount of money needed to bail his then-girlfriend out of jail—he shot two employees, Brenda McClyea and Suzette Smith, multiple times in the face and slashed their throats. 

On Jan. 27, Grant is set to become the third man Oklahoma has put to death since a 2015 moratorium on executions in the state was lifted last October. His crime was undoubtedly heinous, and Grant confessed to it shortly after. He was sentenced to die in 2006. The question, however, is whether his well-documented history of mental illness makes him competent enough to understand what he did and thus be executed for it at Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Grant’s mental state has been a concern since he was charged—it took over four years for him to go to trial. He needed to be medicated and treated for psychotic agitation and paranoia first. 


“I can’t really explain myself because, truth be told, I really don’t understand myself mentally. I don’t understand myself, how I think, how I function,” Grant said during his clemency hearing. “I was not in my rightful mind. I was in my wrongful mind, meaning you know when I let that entity talk to me, which is the devil. ’Cause God don't tell you to go kill somebody. That ain’t our nature and everything.”

In December, another diagnosed schizophrenic on Oklahoma’s death row, Wade Lay, was granted a temporary stay so that a jury can decide if his mental illness allows him to be executed. Although Lay killed only one person, another difference is their race; Lay is white, and Grant is Black.

Aside from the inequities of death row, the first execution since Oklahoma’s moratorium was lifted, that of John Grant, went horribly wrong. According to witnesses, John Grant convulsed about two dozen times and vomited following the injection of midazolam, just one of the three drugs used in a traditional execution cocktail, before dying 12 minutes later. 

John Grant’s “botched” execution led to a federal lawsuit challenging Oklahoma’s procedure for capital punishment—and whether it can be considered “humane.” The state, however, maintains that John Grant’s execution went according to plan.


“I don’t understand myself, how I think, how I function.”

More than anything, what concerns Donald is the possibility his execution will be “botched” too. A recent conversation between prison guards he says he overheard on the way to the shower only stoked that fear: “Officers saying they wanna like, botch me, you know, and have a botched execution, you know, fucking me up on that table,” Donald said.

Donald’s lawyers had argued that the state’s current three-drug lethal injection protocol will expose him to a constitutionally unacceptable risk of severe pain. On Monday, however, a panel of judges denied his stay of execution, paving the way for his execution to go ahead. 

His lawyer, Susan Otto, wouldn’t speak to VICE News but told local news outlet KOCO that "Mr. Grant is well aware he's going to be executed. He does not wish to be executed. He is afraid, and he understands that he may die like John Grant. And he's terrified of that.”

The families of Donald’s victims, however, believe he should be executed. “Please, I firmly believe that he deserves to die,” Susie Webster, McElyea’s aunt, said. “Given the chance to live, he would cut your throat and put a bullet in your brain.”

Donald could have joined the lawsuit challenging Oklahoma’s execution process, which ultimately would have stayed his execution. But to do that, inmates had to choose an alternative method of dying, like the firing squad or gas chamber. When his lawyers presented him with that fact, Donald said he didn’t understand them.


In a handwritten letter to the judge presiding over his case on Sept. 22, Donald wrote: “If this lawyer that seen me would have explained to me, bluntly, that if I don’t chose a method, that I would be tooken off the lawsuit, and will be executed right away, I would have understood that, and chose the methods.” 

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Donald Grant (image courtesy of Joe Robinson)

Both Donald Grant and Gilbert Postelle, another inmate left off the federal lawsuit, have tried to come back to the state with a decision—they want the firing squad. A federal judge, however, refused to allow both men back into the lawsuit or to block Oklahoma from carrying out the next scheduled executions.

Just hours before Bigler Stouffer was executed in Oklahoma last month, he told VICE News he was “deliberately excluded” from the lawsuit without a clear reason. Stouffer’s attorney, Greg Laird, said in a last-ditch appeal that Stouffer was being treated unfairly, but the execution went ahead. 

Another death row inmate, Julius Jones, whose case caught the attention of celebrities Kim Kardashian and Blake Griffin, was also left off the lawsuit, but his sentence was commuted by Gov. Kevin Stitt, just hours before his scheduled execution. 

‘I ate anything off the damn street’

Donald grew up bouncing among the Pink Houses, one of Brooklyn’s most notorious projects; countless shelters; and the streets. It was the height of the crack epidemic, which his mother had fallen victim to. He was left to look for food in trash cans with his little brother Shawn. He remembers eating chicken bones or chewing gum he found on the street. 

“I ate anything off the damn street that I've seen that looked like food,” Donald said. 


Now that he has less than 48 hours left to live, Donald has already requested his last meal: shrimp fried rice, six egg rolls, donuts, and some strawberry ice cream. “That’s my favorite kind,” he told VICE News. 

It will be a tiny step up from what he calls the “mystery meat” that the prison has served him for the last 25 years and that he hardly ever touches.

Grant’s family, however, is still hoping Donald will never have to eat that meal—although they have already traveled from New York and North Carolina to witness his execution. A couple weeks ago, Donald’s older brother Joe Robinson also received a box on his doorstep with the contents of Donald’s old cell—an old TV, a skullcap (kufi), and some bedsheets. 

“It makes me very sad because his property will serve as a reminder that he, in a couple of weeks on Jan. 27, will no longer be with me and the family,” Robinson told VICE News at the time in an audio diary.

Donald’s old cell is now empty, since he’s been moved to what’s called a “death cell,” just a short distance from the chamber where he’s slated to die. All of Donald’s possessions have been confiscated, the lights remain on all the time, and he’s being watched 24/7 to avoid any suicide attempts. 


Robinson will have his final visit with Donald on Wednesday. It will be a non-contact visit,  meaning no touching, no hugging goodbye. Instead, he will have to shout his goodbyes through holes punched in a clear plastic barrier. 

“It’s just so clinical and cold,” Robinson said.

The actual events of Donald’s execution day are just as impersonal. Robinson and his family will drive to an unknown location where they will be escorted, similar to inmates, to the death chamber to watch their brother take his last breath. 

“The family are taken to the viewing room of the execution chamber. The curtain across the viewing windows will open at 10 a.m. and Donald will have a chance to say any last words. He’ll already be hooked up to an IV,” Grant’s spiritual advisor, Don Heath, told VICE News. The time of death is announced and then everyone exits the facility.” 

In Grant’s cell, he’s spending his last hours listening to old-school hip-hop, specifically a 30-second sample of “How Long” by Grand Puba offered on his prison tablet.  

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