Execution procedures need injection of transparency

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • October 7, 2014

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The lack of a national regulatory standard for execution procedures leaves many inmates susceptible to cruel and unusual punishment
The lack of a national regulatory standard for execution procedures leaves many inmates susceptible to cruel and unusual punishment

Clayton Lockett was scheduled for execution on the night of April 29, 2014. Fourteen years earlier, Lockett was sentenced to death for a first-degree murder conviction, in addition to nearly 3,000 years in prison for other crimes. As Oklahoma Department of Corrections officials readied the cocktail of lethal injection drugs that had never before been used in the state, Lockett was given a feeble sedative. 10 minutes later, according to the New York Times, a doctor declared Lockett unconscious and the drugs, comprised of another sedative and a chemical to make the heart stop, were administered.

Except the mixture wasn’t so painless, and nothing about Lockett’s execution went as intended. “He began breathing heavily, writhing,” the Associated Press reported on the night of his death, “clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow.” Lockett hadn’t been effectively sedated, and the drugs that were supposed to quickly and painlessly release him to the afterlife only caused a fatal heart attack.

No matter the personal politics surrounding the issue of capital punishment, the botched execution of Clayton Lockett provides an opportunity to urgently and meaningfully reevaluate the administration of the penalty. Lethal injection remains the state’s most used mode of execution, but this Oklahoma example is only the latest instance in which it has failed to safely and humanely execute an inmate. Instead of making the procedure itself, and the information surrounding it, more transparent, Oklahoma released new execution procedures that are mired even deeper in secrecy.

Immediately following Lockett’s mismanaged execution, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin ordered a 14-day stay—later extended to six months—of the execution of Charles F. Warner, an inmate who was scheduled be put to death just two hours after Lockett, according to the Associated Press. In the months since, the Republican governor has accepted 11 new execution protocols released by the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, which outlines a list of supposedly positive reforms, including new training requirements for the Corrections officials that administer the lethal injection drugs, and a directive to increase the sedative dosage. Also on the list: a reduction of the number of media witnesses allowed in the execution audience from 12 to five.

And that’s the thing—though reforms may be trying to ensure the competence of Corrections officials, details about the procedure are still shrouded from both the public and the inmates slated for execution, which prevents these changes from being verified independently of the state’s shallow claims. Information about the production and purchase of these lethal injection drugs are especially important today, as states often procure non-federally regulated versions from pharmacies with lower regulatory standards, as reported by the Associated Press. Amid these management changes comes a limitation placed on media presence that only serves to stifle details and information surrounding this new administration of the death penalty, when just the opposite should be done.

Oklahoma isn’t the only state to fail to successfully execute prisoners on death row, and multiple states—including Texas, Florida, and Missouri—have similar provisions that ought to be gutted completely. A standardized national procedure for carrying out a death sentence would be beneficial, but more critical is transparency from execution chambers across the country. Every detail in the contentious process of killing a convicted felon should be made public to truly protect the safety and humanity of the procedure.

I was born and raised in Oklahoma, and the circumstances of my upbringing left me with a particular familiarity with the state’s criminal justice system and the McAlester prison in which Lockett and other criminals met their death. The significance is not lost on me that my father, now a retired district judge, sentenced two men in that prison to death for crimes that my mother, a former anchor and reporter for our city’s ABC affiliate, covered. It has enshrined in me a fastidious and deeply personal belief in the checks and balances between the prison system and the fourth estate. The death sentence is ostensibly the most serious action the state can take against a citizen, and to limit its media coverage is disgraceful, especially in the state described by an expert witness in 2005 as having an execution protocol that failed to meet the “minimum standard of safe care for any person.”

In July, a convicted murderer in Arizona “gasped and snorted for more than 90 minutes after a lethal injection,” according to the Los Angeles Times. In September, CNN reported that an Ohio prisoner “gasped and convulsed” for 10 minutes during his execution. And Lockett lived for 43 minutes after he was administered the first sedative, enough time for media witnesses at his execution to clearly discern him uttering the words “Man,” “I’m not,” and “Something’s wrong” before his death. Lockett was right—in his death and in the individual state procedures surrounding executions, something is wrong, and it is a series of institutional ills that cannot be cured by limiting the number of journalists present to watch.