Oklahoma report blames intravenous-line woes for problematic execution

Terry Crenshaw, wardens assistant at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, walks through the facility's execution chamber on April 15, 2008.
(Associated Press)

It took 43 minutes for Clayton Lockett to die in April in Oklahoma’s death chamber, raising questions about whether the botched execution was caused by a failed drug protocol. On Thursday, a state investigation blamed the problems in carrying out the sentence on the use and monitoring of an intravenous line.

The report, prepared by the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, calls for some changes, including making the IV site visible to officials throughout an execution, better training to cope with contingencies and having additional supplies on hand. Overall, however, the report says officials acted properly during the April 29 execution of Lockett despite the length of time and witnesses’ accounts that he was writhing in pain.

In recent years, states have had difficulties finding new sources of drugs to be used in executions. Opponents have also questioned the types and dosages of the drugs used.

Oklahoma used the sedative midazolam for the first time in Lockett’s execution, and Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson said at a televised news conference Thursday that the deadly cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride were successful.


“The drugs worked,” he said. “At the end of the day … the drugs did what they were designed to do.

“Are there some things that need to be improved? Absolutely.”

The report says medical workers resorted to inserting the IV line carrying the execution drugs into a vein in Lockett’s groin after failing to find a viable vein in his legs and arms. The IV site was covered with a sheet and not monitored until the physician saw swelling larger than a golf ball, according to the report.

“The physician and paramedic made several attempts to start a viable IV access point. They both believed the IV access was the major issue with this execution. This investigation concluded the viability of the IV access point was the single greatest factor that contributed to the difficulty in administering the execution drugs,” the report says.

But despite those difficulties, the report says, Department of Corrections officials followed the rules.

“Regarding whether DOC correctly followed their current execution protocols, it was determined there were minor deviations from specific requirements outlined in the protocol,” the report says. “Despite those deviations, it was determined the protocol was substantially and correctly complied with throughout the entire process. None of the identified deviations contributed to the complications encountered during this execution.”

An attorney representing a group of prisoners on Oklahoma’s death row criticized the report, saying it “raises more questions than it answers” and protects the chain of command.

“Once the execution was clearly going wrong, it should have been stopped, but it wasn’t. Whoever allowed the execution to continue needs to be held accountable,” attorney Dale Baich said in a statement.


He said a pending federal lawsuit against the state would question witnesses under oath and attempt to “seek complete information about the manner of Clayton Lockett’s death.”

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said she expected corrections officials to implement the recommended protocols.

“I continue to believe the death penalty is an appropriate and just punishment for those guilty of the most heinous crimes, as Mr. Lockett certainly was,” Fallin said in a statement. “The state’s responsibility is to ensure a sentence of death is carried out in an effective manner. Commissioner Thompson’s report and his recommendations for improved DOC protocols will help ensure this high standard is met.”

The report was the result of an investigation ordered by Fallin into Lockett’s death, one of several executions that ignited debate over how states administer the death penalty and whether they violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton originally said the cause of death was a heart attack, but autopsy results released last week said Lockett, 38, died from the execution drugs.


Lockett was convicted of shooting Stephanie Neiman, 19, with a sawed-off shotgun and watching as two accomplices buried her alive in 1999.
Follow @michaelmuskal on Twitter for national news