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Q&A: Details on botched execution in Oklahoma and what happens next

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Q&A: Why Oklahoma's botched execution has renewed death-penalty furor

Calvin Lockett writhed and grimaced during his botched execution in Oklahoma on Tuesday, and even though the convict was supposed to die, the manner of his slow death, has touched off a renewed furor over capital punishment in the United States. Here is a primer to understanding the complex issue.

How did the execution begin?

According to witnesses and the state's official comment, Lockett, a convicted murderer and rapist, was brought to the execution chamber and an intravenous line was inserted into his vein. A sedative was administered and about 10 minutes later a doctor announced that Lockett was unconscious. The execution team then began administering the next drugs in the protocol, one to paralyze him and one to make his heart stop.

Then what happened?

Lockett didn’t die as expected. Instead, he began to writhe in pain, clenched his teeth and even tried to raise his head. Witnesses reported he was able to speak. Prison officials pulled a curtain to block any further view of the activities in the execution chamber. They later said Lockett died of a heart attack after 43 minutes. They blamed the botched execution on a failure of Lockett’s vein.

Is this the first time a lethal-injection execution has gone wrong? 

No. In January, convicted murder Dennis McGuire made snorting and gasping sounds as he was executed in Ohio by lethal injection. His family has sued and sought a moratorium on all executions in the state. Ohio officials have defended their actions but announced on Monday that the dosages of its lethal injection drugs will be increased.

Why is the Oklahoma case so significant?

Capital punishment has been debated for decades, but the early opposition was based primarily on such moral questions as: Does the state have the right to kill a convict or should it limit its actions to punishment such as life in prison without parole? Repeated court decisions have answered that question, saying the state can execute inmates, but the procedures are still being working out. The Oklahoma case is the latest high-profile example of an execution gone bad.

Does the method really matter?

According to the U.S. and most state constitutions, it does. The U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

How does a state humanely execute a convict?

Most states used a three-drug lethal injection cocktail. That was the standard until about 2010 when many suppliers, particularly companies in Europe where the death penalty is generally banned, came under public pressure and stopped making their medications available for executions. That touched off problems for many states, forcing them to seek other sources for drugs needed for executions.

Where do the states get the drugs now?

Finding an adequate supply has been a problem so states have been experimenting with different drugs, combinations and dosages. Exactly from where the drugs come from is generally not known because most states have laws that protect the identities of the suppliers and even the names and dosages of the drugs used. Attorneys seeking to block executions have fought these secrecy laws, arguing the information is needed to determine whether capital convicts would face cruel and unusual punishment. States in general have defended the secrecy laws, citing security concerns and a desire to protect suppliers of the drugs.

How does this relate to Oklahoma?

Last month, Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish ruled that the state's secrecy laws were unconstitutional because they prevented the courts and inmates from obtaining needed information. That touched off a political battle in the state with the Supreme Court issuing a stay on the executions. At least one legislator called for the judges to be impeached if they didn’t lift the stay. After a series of battles the branches of Oklahoma's government, the stay was lifted and the state was allowed to execute Lockett and another inmate, Charles Warner, convicted in the 1997 death of an 11-month-old girl. Both executions were scheduled for Tuesday, but Warner’s was stayed for two weeks after Lockett’s execution ran into problems.

What chemicals did Oklahoma use?

The state said that the inmates would be executed using midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride, a combination never before used in Oklahoma. Executions have been conducted using that drug combination in Florida but with lower doses. The defense lawyers had sought more information on the dosages that would be used in Oklahoma and on the drugs' efficacy, but the information was not turned over.

What happens next?

The state will investigate to determine what happened during Lockett's execution and the exact cause of his death. A key question will be whether the difficulties were the result of a problem with his veins or with the dosage of the chemicals used.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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