May 1, 2014

Botched execution should cause states to re-examine death penalty procedures

Politics should not steer the final steps of the process.

The scene in the Oklahoma execution chamber Tuesday night was so horrific that authorities pulled the curtains to block spectators’ view.

Condemned murderer Clayton Lockett, who had been declared unconscious after the first drug of a three-drug cocktail was administered, began shaking uncontrollably, gasping, moaning and attempting to raise his body from the gurney to which he was strapped.

The botched execution was halted after 20 minutes, and Lockett died 23 minutes after that — a full 43 minutes after the process began — apparently of a heart attack.

Something had gone terribly wrong, and it was instantly clear that this inmate’s death, which was to have been the first of two in Oklahoma that night, did not pass the constitutional standard of being neither cruel nor unusual, even for a man convicted of shooting a woman he robbed and watching two of his buddies bury her alive in 1999.

Just as bizarre, though, was the process that led to two men being scheduled to die two hours apart in the same chamber.

Lockett and inmate Charles Warner sued the state because officials refused to reveal details about the execution drugs, including from which manufacturer they were obtained. The law allowing the secrecy about the drugs was declared unconstitutional by a trial judge, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court stayed the executions last week.

What followed was a game of political football, with two men’s lives sadly being the trophy. Gov. Mary Fallin declared that she wasn’t bound by the decision of the Supreme Court, which normally hears civil cases, and a state legislator began the process to impeach the five justices who voted for the stay.

The court bowed to pressure and lifted the stay, and the two executions were scheduled for Tuesday night.

Warner’s execution has been postponed for at least 14 days, and the governor has called for an independent review of Lockett’s case to be conducted by the state’s Department of Public Safety, which critics say is anything but independent. Lockett’s body was to be sent to the Dallas County medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.

Ideally a review would be conducted by a non-state agency, and there ought to be a moratorium on executions in Oklahoma until the full examination has been concluded, as some organizations have sought.

Most of the 32 states with capital punishment, including Texas, have become secretive about their drug suppliers as more manufacturers have refused to sell drugs to put people to death. Texas insists its secrecy is due to increasing threats against suppliers, although the state has not produced evidence of such threats.

Officials here say they have no plans to further review the method used to put people to death, noting that since 2012, when the state began using the single drug pentobarbital, 33 people have been executed without incident. A 34th prisoner is scheduled to die May 13.

Death penalty opponents and many attorneys for Death Row inmates say the bungled execution in Oklahoma gives more credibility to those cases in which condemned individuals have demanded more information about the drugs that will be used to kill them.

The Oklahoma example, and a case last January in Ohio where a condemned man showed pain during an execution, ought to cause all death penalty states to review their protocols, disclose how their drugs work and reveal the sources of those drugs.

A state’s use of capital punishment, its method of execution and even its fights in the courts to ensure that the death penalty is carried out for certain individuals are policies in which politics are naturally part of the process.

But blatant political intervention in a specific execution, as demonstrated in the Oklahoma case, should never be acceptable or tolerated.

The stakes are simply too high for this ultimate act of criminal justice to be guided at the end by political whim.

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