Not surprisingly, we were right to be skeptical.
The state of Oklahoma tried last month to execute a killer named Clayton Lockett, and badly botched it. Oklahoma’s preferred act of barbarism is with a lethal injection. As witnesses watched, the execution seemed to drag on before Lockett, who had been declared unconscious from the sedative injected to start the three-drug protocol, began writhing and struggling against the restraints holding him to the gurney. The curtain quickly came down, and a short while later, prison officials emerged to say that the execution was aborted because Lockett’s “vein exploded,” but that Lockett had died anyway of a heart attack.
It was a statement deserving skepticism at the time, and a preliminary autopsy report now confirms that skepticism was justified.
No veins exploded. The autopsy found that Lockett had “excellent integrity of peripheral and deep veins for the purpose of achieving venous access” for receiving the killing mixture. The execution squad just couldn’t figure out how to do it. The examiner found bruising, puncture wounds and “the presence of vascular injury indicative of failed vascular catheter access.” The examiner also tellingly reported an “inability to confirm that a primary cardiac condition played any role in Mr. Lockett’s death (i.e., a heart attack).” Which means he likely didn't have an existing heart condition that would have killed him.
Oklahoma has wisely suspended other executions as it figures out what happened, and how to change its execution system to try to ensure that it works right — or, at least, better — the next time.
We’re right to be skeptical that the state will ever get it right. In fact, there are reports that lethal drug executions are botched at a higher rate than other methods. Of course, the pro-execution folks will argue that there are simpler ways of killing someone, from a bullet to the head to reverting to that gruesome symbol of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, the guillotine.
But it’s not right. Most doctors and nurses decline to take part, and pharmaceutical companies — never known to shy away from an easy buck — refuse to sell their drugs for use in executions. That has led to such bizarre turns as Georgia paying an unidentified doctor $5,000 to prescribe pentobarbital to execute condemned killer Marcus Wellons, without the doctor ever having met Wellons. According to a legal challenge filed this week, it is a violation of state and federal law for a doctor to write a prescription for a patient he or she has not examined. If true, that means Georgia violated the law to get the drugs with which to kill a man who violated the law.
The death penalty is neither sound public policy nor good ethics. As I’ve written before, there is no room for sympathy for killers. But these actions aren’t about the killers, who are locked away until they die. These executions, botched or not, are about us.
Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle