Oklahoma has left itself no margin for error the next time it executes a death row inmate, not after the problems with Clayton Derrell Lockett’s execution last week.
Lockett, who killed a 19-year-old woman in 1999 by shooting her twice with a shotgun and then having her buried alive, didn’t die peacefully on the gurney at Oklahoma State Penitentiary, as so many before him have. Instead, he took longer than usual to fall unconscious. Then he writhed and grimaced and twitched. Eventually prison officials closed the curtain to witnesses. They later said a “blown vein” kept the lethal drugs from working as planned; Lockett died of an apparent heart attack more than 40 minutes after the execution began.
Charles Warner was to be executed just two hours after Lockett, for raping and killing his girlfriend’s 11-month-old daughter in 1997. But Gov. Mary Fallin delayed it for two weeks and ordered a top-down review of Lockett’s execution and the state’s protocol. Warner’s execution could very well be pushed back further, depending on the length of the review.
Other states have had problematic executions. In 2009, an Ohio death row inmate was given a reprieve after executioners failed to find a suitable vein despite trying for hours. These incidents have prompted criticism from opponents of the death penalty, as Lockett’s did. This hand-wringing is often short lived.
Might the Oklahoma case change that? Much of the outrage last week involved Oklahoma keeping secret the source of its execution drugs, as is allowed by state law. The term “human experimentation” was used by some critics to describe the procedure.
Shortages of drugs once used in executions forced the state to look elsewhere for other drugs. Oklahoma used the sedative midazolam for the first time Tuesday. Florida uses the same drug, although in a much larger dose. Might that have been an issue in this case? Were the drugs sound, as state Attorney General Scott Pruitt has promised repeatedly?
Was an intravenous needle applied improperly by medical technicians in the execution chamber, as some medical experts have suggested? The head of the Department of Corrections revealed that the IV was inserted in Lockett’s groin because numerous efforts to place it in his arms, legs or feet failed.
These are just some of the questions facing the state’s public safety commissioner, Michael Thompson, who is leading the investigation into Lockett’s execution. Pruitt has assigned investigators from his office to assist. Lockett’s attorney wants an independent review, instead of one led by a state agency, but at this point there’s no reason to believe Thompson will do anything other than thorough, professional and unbiased work. He must, given the stakes.
The prospects of a double execution, following extensive legal maneuverings by defense attorneys and the state, created considerable interest for the Lockett and Warner cases. A dozen media members — the maximum allowed — were in the witness room for Lockett; others were on hand in the prison’s media center.
Last week’s mess and the reaction to it ensure an even larger media presence for Oklahoma’s next execution. If and when that execution occurs, the state must get it absolutely right or brace itself for further criticism and pressure to find some other way to punish its most despicable criminals.
— The Oklahoman