Opinion: Oklahoma is investigating itself over botched execution? Please.


Fifteen years ago Clayton Lockett committed a heinous crime. On Tuesday night, so did the state of Oklahoma, in practice if not in legal fact.

There are more questions than certainty surrounding the botched execution and ultimate death by heart attack of Lockett around 7 p.m. local time. According to Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton, Lockett’s “vein exploded” and kept the three-step execution cocktail from being properly administered — a problem the executioners apparently didn’t notice until Lockett, presumed unconscious from the first injection, began writhing in pain.

It’s unknown whether the composition of the drugs being used — the subject of a failed legal challenge — had anything to do with the botched execution. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has ordered an investigation, but lawyers for Lockett and another man who was scheduled to die Tuesday, Charles Warner, have called for an independent investigation.


That’s the way to go. Beyond the inherent inhumanity of the death penalty, Oklahoma (and at least two other states) bar disclosure of the source of the drugs used in their executions. Lockett and Warner had challenged that law, arguing that without knowing who made the drugs and how they were concocted, the condemned have no way of knowing if the method of execution would violate their constitutional protection against cruel and inhuman punishment.

Were the drugs responsible for the botched execution? It’s too soon to say, though the initial indication is it may have been either a problem with Lockett’s veins or a mechanical/medical failure. Whatever the cause, anything that leaves a man writhing in pain and then succumbing to a heart attack would, one hopes, be considered cruel and unusual punishment and thus barred by the U.S. Constitution. At the very least, the people who botched the execution should not be the people to investigate it. This calls for transparency, not some Chris Christie-like exercise in self-exoneration.

To be sure, there is no room for sympathy for Lockett over the crime he committed. But we as a society are responsible for the anguish he suffered as we killed him. The bloodthirsty pro-death-penalty crowd will whoop with joy, but people with a sense of humanity should recognize an immoral act when they see it.

The Tulsa World had a reporter in the observation room who delivered a chilling account of the execution, which says, in part:

6:37 p.m. The inmate’s body starts writhing and bucking and it looks like he’s trying to get up. Both arms are strapped down and several straps secure his body to the gurney. He utters another unintelligible statement. Defense attorney Dean Sanderford is quietly crying in the observation area.

6:38 p.m. Lockett is grimacing, grunting and lifting his head and shoulders entirely up from the gurney. He begins rolling his head from side to side. He again mumbles something we can’t understand, except for the word “man.” He lifts his head and shoulders off the gurney several times, as if he’s trying to sit up. He appears to be in pain.


6:39 p.m. The physician walks around to Lockett’s right arm, lifts up the sheet and says something to Trammell. “We’re going to lower the blinds temporarily,” she says. The blinds are lowered and we can’t see what is happening. Reporters exchange shocked glances. Nothing like this has happened at an execution any of us has witnessed since 1990, when the state resumed executions using lethal injection.

6:40 p.m. A black landline phone rings in the viewing chamber and Patton leaves to take the call, stretching the phone cord out into the hall and closing the door behind him. Though the clock on the wall in the execution chamber is no longer visible, it seems like several minutes pass before Thompson is summoned out to the hallway.

Approximately 6:50 p.m. Patton comes back to the viewing room and says the execution has been “stopped. We’ve had a vein failure in which the chemicals did not make it into the offender.... Under my authority, we are issuing a stay for the second execution.” The announcement is stunning and leaves us wondering what has happened to Lockett.

As I’ve written before, this is not the act of a civilized society.


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