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Secrecy surrounding Oklahoma execution is unacceptable

Pulled shutters during botched execution draws lawsuit

When the state of Oklahoma finally got around to executing Clayton Lockett in April, it did so partially in secret — and ultimately by accident.

Lockett, you may recall, was the convicted murderer whose execution was so botched that prison officials abandoned the procedure. Lockett died a short time later of a heart attack. But the official and media witnesses missed most of the procedure because of the actions of the prison authorities, compounding an embrace of secrecy that should bother even the strongest of death penalty supporters.

Before the execution, Oklahoma officials refused to divulge the source of the drugs it used, the reasons those drugs were selected and where they came from. When it came time for the deed itself, the executioners did the prep work behind closed shutters, opened them for the witnesses to see the execution, but then hurriedly closed them again when it became clear that the executioners had screwed up — instead of dying, Lockett writhed in pain beneath restraints binding him to a gurney.

So what under Oklahoma law should have been an open process, with the media as the public’s surrogate witness to an execution in the peoples’ name, was largely done out of sight. No one other than those involved in the execution witnessed the insertion of the intravenous lines through which the killing drugs were to be administered (and the step in the process in which the error appears to have occurred), and no one other than those involved saw the aborted end of the execution. Nor, for that matter, did the witnesses see Lockett die of a heart attack.

Lockett’s tortured end is part of a surge of botched executions, all connected by midazolam. The first drug used in Oklahoma’s three-drug protocol, midazolam is supposed to render the condemned unconscious before a paralytic, vecuronium bromide, is administered, followed by potassium chloride to stop the heart. Midazolam also was used in Ohio and Arizona executions that went awry, though in Lockett’s case it seems the method of injection was the problem, not the drug itself. A federal judge has ordered a moratorium on executions in Ohio until next year to give the state time to figure out what went wrong in the January execution of Dennis McGuire, who gasped and choked and took 25 minutes to die. Arizona is reviewing the July execution of convicted murderer Joseph Wood III, which lasted nearly two hours and took 15 doses.

Oklahoma is conducting its own review, but given the state’s predilection for secrecy in its executions, its findings will be greeted with warranted skepticism.

The death penalty should be abolished for a wide range of reasons, including its inconsistent application, but primarily because it is morally wrong. But if states are going to execute people, the executions should be conducted as openly and subject to as much scrutiny as possible.

To that end, media organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union last week sued Oklahoma, asking a judge to compel the state to follow its own laws and open the full execution process to witnesses, particularly the media. And I should note that the reporter witnesses are selected by lottery; those admitted to the execution are required to share what they observe with other journalists — what’s known in the trade as a press pool.

The plaintiffs argue, rightfully, that by selectively opening and closing the shutters covering windows into the death chamber, prison officials denied the public’s right to know about a significant governmental action. After the fact, corrections officials released incomplete statements about what occurred, but the public’s eyes and ears — the media — were unable to offer independent corroboration or to refute the facts as the prison officials provided them.

Such secrecy is unacceptable. Oklahoma has scheduled another execution for Nov. 13, though that could get delayed (it was to have taken place shortly after Lockett’s execution but was postponed). The courts should side with the plaintiffs. Secretive executions should not be part of an open government, or society.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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