How Oklahoma's Botched Execution Affects the Death-Penalty Debate

State officials used untested drugs from a secret source to end the life of Clayton Lockett, who took more than 45 minutes to die. 
Clayton Lockett, left, took more than 45 minutes to die during a death-row execution by lethal injection on Tuesday night. As a result, the scheduled execution of Charles Warner, right, was stayed. (Reuters/The Atlantic)

Officials in Oklahoma had many reasons to suspect there would be problems with the execution of death-row inmate Clayton Lockett last night. They were using an untested mix of lethal drugs, never previously used in that dosage combination, obtained through secret means, which precluded the possibility of oversight from attorneys or medical officials on the quality of the drugs. They were warned by medical experts, and asked by defense attorneys, to open up the process to review—by the courts, by doctors, by some members of the public. Yet they refused.

Although officials in other states have also denied requests for transparency about lethal injection protocols, Oklahoma's legal conflicts on the issue have been particularly intense. When the state supreme court early last week sought to halt the process, state lawmakers quickly moved to try to impeach the justices. And the governor, Mary Fallin, issued an order decreeing that she would not abide by the judicial ruling of her state's highest court.

So the execution of Clayton Lockett proceeded. What happened was anything but standard: The man's heart essentially exploded after officials stopped pumping his body full of the deadly chemicals. "We always argue that something like this is going to happen," one defense attorney close to the case told me Tuesday night, "but we always hope it won't." This time, it did. 

KFOR in Oklahoma provided a timeline:

6:23 PM – Prison officials raise the blinds. Execution begins.

6:28 PM – Inmate shivering, sheet shaking.  Breathing deep.

6:29 PM – Inmate blinking and gritting his teeth.  Adjusts his head.

6:30 PM – Prison officials check to see if inmate is unconscious.  Doctor says, “He’s not unconscious."  Inmate says “I’m not.”  Female prison official says, “Mr. Lockett is not unconscious.”

6:32 PM – Inmate’s breathing is normal, mouth open, eyes shut. For a second time, prison officials check to see if inmate is unconscious.

6:33 PM – Doctor says, “He is unconscious.” Prison official says “Mr. Lockett is unconscious.”

6:34 PM – Inmate’s mouth twitches.  No sign of breathing.

6:35 PM – Mouth movement.

6:36 PM – Inmate’s head moves from side to side, then lifts his head off the bed.

6:37 PM – Inmate lifts his head and feet slightly off the bed.  Inmate tries to say something, mumbles while moving body.

6:38 pm – More movement by the inmate. At this point the inmate is breathing heavily and appears to be struggling.

6:39 PM – Inmate tries to talk. Says “man” and appears to be trying to get up. Doctor checks on inmate. Female prison official says, “We are going to lower the blinds temporarily." Prison phone rings. Director of Prisons Robert Patton answers the phone and leaves the room—taking three state officials with him.

Minutes later—the director of prisons comes back into the room and tells the eyewitnesses that there has been a vein failure. He says, “The chemical did not make it into the vein of the prisoner. Under my authority, we are issuing a stay of execution.”

And, less than a half hour after that, Lockett was pronounced dead of what officials said was a heart attack. This could have been foreseen: The Associated Press reported late last night that two of the drugs Oklahoma used on this man "carry warnings that they can suppress the respiratory system and the third warns that cardiac trouble can occur at high but non-lethal doses..." The idea that there was "vein failure" is dubious. Lockett was neither a drug user nor a skinny man. The director of the ACLU of Oklahoma called it a "human science experiment." 

In killing Clayton Lockett this way, state officials thus elevated a convicted murderer to a status he surely did not deserve in life or would have ever obtained had his execution been preceded by acceptable levels of due process. Lockett was not an innocent man who had been framed by the police, ignored by his attorney, or railroaded by a bigoted judge or jury. If we are to have a death penalty in this country, he was a suitable candidate. But in its zeal to kill him, in its frustration about the delay in meting out punishment, Oklahoma turned him into a symbol.

A symbol of what? Many things. What happened last night was the inevitable result of a breakdown in government in Oklahoma, where frustration at the continuing delay in the resolution of Lockett's case blinded state officials to the basic requirements of due process. From these officials' perspectives, the fight over this man's fate seemed to be personal, rather than a dispassionate exercise in bureaucracy. 

This has exposed yet another instance where the "machinery of death," to use Justice Harry Blackmun's immortal phrase, is incapable of running with the sort of precision necessary to work a capital regime. What happened last night to Clayton Lockett surely won't convince lawmakers in Oklahoma or Texas or Missouri or Louisiana or Alabama to end their experiment with the death penalty. But if what happened last night in Oklahoma doesn't cause our nation's judges to stop the cycle of secrecy over lethal injections, it will be a scandal. 

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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