Oklahoma Lethal Injection Screwup Reignites Death Penalty Debate

Federal Crimes, Homicide

An Oklahoma man’s heart attack Tuesday following a botched lethal injection has sparked has renewed debate over capital punishment and the methods used to implement it.

According to the Washington Post, Clayton Lockett — who was convicted in 2000 of shooting a woman and then watching as she was buried alive — was sentenced to the death penalty and scheduled for execution on Tuesday. Lockett was given the first in a set of three drugs that make up the lethal injection cocktail and was pronounced unconscious moments later, but then started writhing and groaning on the gurney almost ten minutes after the execution had begun. The prisoner was struggling against his restraints and attempted to speak, though the only word witnesses could make out was “man.” The blinds in the execution chamber were lowered to prevent viewers from watching what happened next, and the execution was officially halted after approximately 20 minutes. Lockett died after suffering a heart attack almost 40 minutes after the execution had started.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton announced in a news conference that the doctor performing the injection had become concerned that the drugs were not having the desired effect, and then determined that Lockett’s vein line had blown. They were thus unsure how much of the chemicals had made it into Lockett’s system and decided to stop the execution.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin subsequently stayed the other execution that was schedule to take place two hours after Lockett’s, that of Charles Warner. She announced that a full investigation would be conducted into the execution and the way in which it was carried out.

Tuesday also marked the first time that the drug midazolam was used as the first in Oklahoma’s new three-drug execution combination, though other states have successfully used it before. However, reports of incidents similar to Lockett’s have become increasingly common across the nation, thus reviving the hot button issue of capital punishment into the national and international spotlight.

Death penalty opponents and defense attorneys who were already fighting to abolish the practice of executions have become even more alarmed as many states have struggled to find new sources for lethal drugs. The dwindling supply is due in large part to pharmaceutical companies – many of which are based in Europe and oppose the death penalty – have refused to sell their products to corrections departments and prisons.

Lockett and Warner both previously sued the state of Oklahoma for refusing to disclose the details of the drug compounds used for lethal injection, including where the state had obtained them. The claims argued that without knowing who manufactured the lethal drugs, they had no way of knowing whether they would work as intended. Both claims were dismissed by Oklahoma’s high court.

The death penalty is currently legal in 32 states, with Texas and Oklahoma performing the highest numbers of executions annually. Lethal injection is by far the most common method of execution, although other forms of execution that are currently still allowed in some states include electrocution, firing squad, hanging, and lethal gas.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution protects Americans from “cruel and unusual” punishment, and it has been determined that the death penalty does not fall into that category so long as it is not applied to those with mental retardation or people under the age of 18. Lockett’s obvious struggle on the gurney Tuesday clearly calls into question the theory that lethal injection is a humane method of administering the death penalty. If states cannot be trusted to properly perform executions, the issue of capital punishment must be seriously reconsidered nationwide.

As a firm that fights to protect the constitutional rights of the accused, Price Benowitz counts itself among the global movement seeking the abolishment of the death penalty. At the very least, however, we agree with those who have demanded that the states that insist on continuing with executions make public the source and contents of the mystery supply of deadly drugs they are doling out to death row inmates. Most of us are familiar with the oft repeated phrase that a society is measured by how it treats its weakest members. If American society were judged by its tradition of putting prisoners to death,  it would be deemed a failure on the most basic level of human decency.

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