Botched Oklahoma Execution Stirs Death Penalty Debate

Wednesday, 30 Apr 2014 12:23 PM

By Drew MacKenzie

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The outrage over the botched execution of an Oklahoma killer has stirred the storm nationwide over the lethal drugs used in the death sentence that will likely lead to a constitutional battle in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The execution of Clayton Lockett by a three-drug cocktail was halted Tuesday after 20 minutes when he began to writhe and thrash around uncontrollably on the gurney after he had been declared unconscious.

Lockett, 38, who was convicted of killing 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman during a home robbery, died in the chamber after 43 minutes when his vein "exploded," resulting in a heart attack.

The planned execution of murderer Charles Warner two hours later on the same gurney was postponed until a full investigation into the injection protocol can be conducted.

CNN
reported that death penalty opponents have now claimed that the bungled execution renewed concerns about whether the lethal drugs administered in the process constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Washington Post reported that the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty put out a statement, saying, "This night will be a catalyst for those aggrieved and outraged to continue to fight to abolish the death penalty in Oklahoma and every other state in America."

CNN noted that Adam Leathers, co-chairman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, accused the state of having "tortured a human being in an unconstitutional experimental act of evil."

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has called for the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of the state’s execution procedures "to determine what happened and why" during the execution.

"I have issued an executive order delaying the execution of Charles Frederick Warner for 14 days to allow for that review to be completed," she said.

The execution was carried out in the massive white state penitentiary in the small prairie town of McAlester, Oklahoma, from which Tom Joad is paroled in the opening pages of John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath."

Lockett and Warner, who were in in neighboring cells, had sued to delay their death sentences on the grounds that the state had refused to disclose details about the execution drugs, including where Oklahoma obtained them.

Although lethal injection is thought to be the most humane form of execution, the secrecy surrounding the deadly drug cocktails has become a contentious issue in the courts. The manufacturers would not want their reputation potentially harmed by revealing they are making drugs for executions.

The Oklahoma state Supreme Court rejected Lockett’s and Warner’s secrecy cases. And, according to The New York Times, this month the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear suits attacking lethal drug secrecy in Missouri and Louisiana.

But Eric Freedman, a professor of constitutional law at Hofstra University, pointed out that three of the justices expressed interest in the case, and he said the issue will eventually be heard by the nation’s top court.

In Texas, officials are facing a state Supreme Court challenge over the secrecy surrounding a new batch of lethal execution drugs, the Times reported.

And in Georgia, a law was passed a law last year making information about lethal drug suppliers a "confidential state secret," which is also being challenged in that state’s highest court.

Lockett was the first person in Oklahoma to be given midazolam, a benzodiazepine intended to render him unconscious, as part of his drug execution, according to the Times.

He was then injected with vecuronium bromide, a paralyzing agent that stops breathing, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. The combination has been given before in Florida, but with a much larger quantity of midazolam.

CNN reported that during an Ohio execution in January, convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire was seen convulsing and gasping for air for several minutes before eventually dying from his lethal drug cocktail of midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone.

His family has since sued for an injunction against the drug protocol, saying "the decedent experienced repeated cycles of snorting, gurgling, and arching his back, appearing to writhe in pain."

A four-time felon, Lockett, was convicted of shooting Neiman with a sawed-off shotgun in 1999 and watching as two accomplices buried her alive after she and a friend arrived at a home the men were robbing.

Warner, 46, was convicted of raping and killing his then-girlfriend’s 11-month-old daughter, Adrianna Waller, in 1997.

His attorney Madeline Cohen said that considering "something went horribly awry" in Lockett’s execution that "we will be pursuing further action."

According to CNN, 32 states have the death penalty, as well as the U.S. government and the U.S. military. Since 2009, New Mexico, Connecticut, and Maryland have voted to abolish it.

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