When Cruel and Unusual Punishment Becomes Usual
The state of Oklahoma tortured a man to death this week. On Tuesday, April 29, Clayton Lockett was strapped to a gurney in the state’s execution chamber. At 6:23 p.m., before a room of witnesses that included 12 members of the media, the first of three drugs was injected into his veins. Ziva Branstetter, enterprise editor at Tulsa World, was among the reporters who watched. She later reported Lockett’s ordeal, minute by minute:
“6:29 p.m. Lockett’s eyes are closed and his mouth is open slightly.
“6:31 p.m. The doctor checks Lockett’s pupils and places his hand on the inmate’s chest, shaking him slightly. ‘Mr. Lockett is not unconscious,’ [Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Anita] Trammell states.”
Branstetter’s detailed eyewitness account goes on:
“6:38 p.m. Lockett is grimacing, grunting and lifting his head and shoulders entirely up from the gurney. … He appears to be in pain.”
Suddenly, the blinds were lowered, concealing the grim activity in the execution chamber. The reporters were told to exit. Lockett was pronounced dead at 7:06 pm. Branstetter said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour, “We were told by the Department of Corrections last night that they haven’t even determined that this qualified as an execution, because he died of a heart attack 43 minutes later.” Most Oklahoma executions last about six minutes. Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton later explained, “His vein exploded.”
Oklahoma had never used this particular “lethal cocktail” before: midazolam, a sedative; vecuronium bromide, to stop respiration; and potassium chloride, to stop the heart. Charles Warner was scheduled to be killed on the same day as Lockett. After the horrifically botched execution of Lockett, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a 14-day stay of execution for Warner. Announcing a review of lethal injections, Fallin said on Wednesday that “the state needs to be certain of its protocols and procedures for executions and that they work.” While the review she has ordered will include an autopsy of Lockett by an independent pathologist, the overall review is being conducted by a member of her cabinet, so its independence is being questioned.
Lockett and Warner had sued Oklahoma, claiming that the secrecy surrounding the source of the drugs and the execution cocktail violated their constitutional rights. One Oklahoma judge agreed and issued a stay last month. Justices of the Oklahoma Supreme Court ultimately agreed and issued their own stay of execution on April 21. On April 22, Gov. Fallin, claiming the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction, ignored the stays and rescheduled the executions to April 29. The next day, the Supreme Court rescinded its stay, stating that the inmates do not, in fact, have the right to know the chemicals to be used in their execution.
“After weeks of Oklahoma refusing to disclose basic information about the drugs for tonight’s lethal-injection procedures, tonight, Clayton Lockett was tortured to death,” said Madeline Cohen, attorney for the other condemned man, Charles Warner. “The state must disclose complete information about the drugs, including their purity, efficacy, source and the results of any testing. Until much more is known about tonight’s failed experiment of an execution, no execution can be permitted in Oklahoma.”
Lockett’s botched execution follows on the heels of a similar debacle in Ohio. On Jan. 16, Dennis McGuire was subjected to a two-drug cocktail. His son, also Dennis, witnessed the ordeal: “My dad began gasping and struggling to breathe. I watched his stomach heave. I watched him try to sit up against the straps on the gurney. I watched him repeatedly clench his fists. It appeared to me he was fighting for his life, but suffocating. The agony and terror of watching my dad suffocate to death lasted more than 19 minutes.”
There are many more such stories. States are desperate for the execution drugs, as pharmaceutical companies in Europe refuse to sell to state governments in the U.S. any chemical that might be used in an execution. The Colorado Independent obtained email documents showing the assistant Oklahoma attorney general joking with a Texas colleague that he might be able to help Texas get the drugs in exchange for 50-yard line tickets for a top college football game.
The Death Penalty Information Center lists 144 people who have been exonerated from death row since 1973. These are innocent people who might have been executed. An article published in the respected Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, released just a day before Lockett’s execution, suggests that more than 4 percent of all death-row prisoners would be exonerated, given enough time to properly review their cases. Even in cases where guilt is not in question, an argument can be made on a purely financial basis. It costs three to four times more to execute a prisoner than it does to incarcerate for life with no chance of parole.
Most developed nations have banned capital punishment. The United States stands shoulder to shoulder in continuing this barbaric practice with countries like China, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. As states commit atrocious experiments on prisoners like Lockett, it is vital to remember that the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Sadly, cruel and unusual is becoming more and more usual.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,200 stations in North America. She is the co-author of “The Silenced Majority,” a New York Times best-seller.
© 2014 Amy Goodman
Distributed by King Features Syndicate