What people remember about Stephanie Neiman is that she played saxophone, loved her truck and spoke her mind. But if you ask somebody who’s lived around Perry, Okla., for a while, they also remember what happened to her, whether they want to or not.
On the night of June 3, 1999, three men kidnapped Neiman and two other people — a man and a woman — at a house in Perry. The men beat the victims, raped the other woman, then took all three outside of town. That’s where Neiman was shot twice and buried alive as she gasped for air.
The 19-year-old’s body had been buried so shallowly that one reserve deputy later noted that her toes were sticking out of the ground.
A repeat felon named Clayton Lockett was convicted of killing her, and it was in the name of justice for Neiman last week that executioners in McAlester, Okla., strapped Lockett, 38, to a table and pumped him full of an experimental combination of lethal drugs.
The procedure ended with officials scrambling and with Lockett muttering and straining against his restraints before dying of a heart attack 43 minutes later. Lockett’s pulse had hardly stopped before national condemnation of his execution arose, thanks to on-scene reporters who tweeted the shocking details of his demise.
But in rural Perry, population 5,090, Lockett’s crime is all they see.
“We are totally upset down here,” said Marilee Macias, owner of Kumback Cafe in downtown Perry, where news of Lockett’s botched execution riled diners. “When that thing happened and hit the paper, that’s all the people here could talk about, how bad the news people blew that up. They’re not thinking of the victim and the victim’s family.”
On Monday, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a statement urging as much. “It is my hope that Stephanie Neiman’s family and friends, as well as Lockett’s surviving victims, have found some measure of closure and peace,” Fallin wrote. “The people of Oklahoma do not have blood on their hands. They saw Clayton Lockett for what he was: evil.”
In a country where support for the death penalty has hit a 40-year low, Oklahoma’s largely conservative population remains in favor of capital punishment. And if Lockett’s death has galvanized national opposition to execution, residents and officials, echoing Fallin, have expressed little regret.
“If anyone ever deserved the death penalty, Lockett did,” said Mark L. Gibson, the retired district attorney who handled the case. “Clayton Lockett was evil. Clayton Lockett hurt those people, and beat those people, and raped those people, and enjoyed it.”
Lockett never apologized for killing Neiman, and in jail had threatened to order hits on the witnesses to his crime, officials said. Some locals were dismayed that Lockett was allowed to survive for 15 years after he killed Neiman while he exhausted his appeals process — a period stained by raw behavior, from throwing feces at a prison guard to getting hold of makeshift knives.
“Even though the execution was botched, he didn’t suffer anything compared to what he did to her,” said Gloria Brown, managing editor of the Perry Daily Journal and a longtime resident of the town, who can still see the physical signs of grief over Neiman’s death 15 years later.
“When I go out there and drive by where Stephanie’s buried, it’s almost like a shrine,” Brown said, naming off the angels, flowers and stuffed animals she’s seen on the grave. “It changes over the years. There’s just so much stuff. You can just feel the heartbreak of those parents.”
When a Times reporter called the family last week to ask whether they would like to comment on Lockett’s execution, a woman answered and said, “No comment,” and hung up.
“They’re very quiet, private people, and Stephanie was their life,” said Gibson, the former prosecutor. Of the murder, he added, “Stephanie’s parents’ lives ended that night, they really did. I saw Susie and Steve at the parole board clemency hearing [in February], and it’s just like they were back at the trial.”
At the hearing — a legal proceeding intended for Lockett to plea for mercy, but which Lockett chose not to attend — Susie Neiman read a victim impact statement filled with heartache, saying, “We have had to endure a living hell for the past 15 years.”
“We go through the motions of living, we eat, we sleep, Steve goes to work and comes home again. We do what we have to do to make it through the day and we start all over again the next. We exist.... There is no Stephanie. There are no more dreams. There is no future.... What is left is Clayton Lockett, who for the last 15 years has been allowed to live.”
Neiman’s parents asked for the death penalty at Lockett’s trial and witnessed his death. Dist. Atty. Brian Hermanson, who attended the execution with the family, downplayed reports of Lockett’s suffering.
“Mr. Lockett’s execution has been sensationalized,” Hermanson said. “It did not go as it was planned — there were some movements by him that were unexpected, but then again … anyone who’s been taken off life support, they know there’s bodily reactions even if they’re brain-dead.
“Suggestions that there was torture, suggestions that there was agony, I didn’t see that,” he said.
Although he supported the execution, Gibson, the retired district attorney, still isn’t sure how to feel.
“Did he get what he deserved? I don’t know,” Gibson said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’m a devout Christian, and I just have more and more trouble, honestly, of the question of ‘get what I deserve.’ ... I will tell you my mother, God love her, wants him to suffer.”