Oklahoma Botched an Execution With Untested Lethal Injection Drugs

The inmate had sued to ensure the execution would be humane. The execution "blew" his vein, and he suffered a heart attack.

Image: duggar11/Flickr

The state of Oklahoma had scheduled two executions for Tuesday, April 29th. This in spite of myriad objections that the drugs being used for both lethal injections had not been tested, and thus could violate the constitutional right to the courts, as well as the 8th Amendment: protection from cruel and unusual punishment. After much legal and political wrangling, the state proceeded with the executions anyway. 

It soon became clear that the critics' worst case scenarios were coming true—Oklahoma violently botched the first execution. The inmate "blew" a vein and had a heart attack. The state quickly postponed the second one.

"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," Madeline Cohen, the attorney​ of Charles Warner, the second man scheduled for execution, said in a statement.

Katie Fretland at The Guardian reported from the scene of the botched attempt to execute Lockett using the untested, unvetted, and therefore potentially unconstitutional lethal injection drugs. Fretland wrote:

For three minutes after the first drugs were delivered, [Lockett] struggled violently, groaned and writhed, lifting his shoulders and head from the gurney.

Some 16 minutes after the execution began, and without Lockett being declared dead, the blinds separating the chamber from the viewing room were lowered. The process was called off shortly afterward.

The Guardian watched as Lockett was covered in a white sheet when the execution began at 6.23 pm. He said "no" when asked for final words. At 6.30 pm, he was found to be still conscious.

Lockett was pronounced unconscious at 6.33 pm, and his violent struggle began three minutes later. He tried to speak, and was heard to say "man" at 6.39pm. An official in the execution room then lowered the blinds so viewers could no longer witness the process.

The capital punishment observation room. Image: Oklahoma Department of Justice

According to Robert Patton, the director of Oklahoma's department of corrections, when doctors felt that the drugs were not having the required effect on Lockett, they discovered that a vein had ruptured. "After conferring with the warden, and unknown how much drugs went into him, it was my decision at that time to stop the execution," Patton told reporters, according to Fretland.

Lockett was pronounced dead of a heart attack at 7:06 pm CST, and Warner's execution, scheduled to begin two hours later, was postponed by the governor of Oklahoma.

"I have asked the department of corrections to conduct a full review of Oklahoma's execution procedures to determine what happened and why during this evening's execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett," Governor Mary Fallin said in a statement. Fallin had objected to efforts by the Oklahoma Supreme Court to investigate the lethal injection drugs last week. "I have issued an executive order delaying the execution of Charles Frederick Warner for 14 days to allow for that review to be completed."

The reason due process is part of our Constitution is to prevent what just happened from happening. It's not clear if Lockett's vein "blew" because of the untested drugs that were administered, or because of the way in which they were administered. Regardless, the inmates had sued the state in order to vet the drugs, the process by which the drugs were acquired, and to ensure that they would be administered in a manner that did not violate the defendants constitutional protection from cruel and unusual punishment. What happened to Lockett was the worse case scenario they, along with five justices from the Oklahoma Supreme Court, were trying to prevent.

Madeline Cohen, Warner's attorney, issued the following statement following Lockett's execution, reiterating much of what she told me the afternoon before:

Without question, we must get complete answers about what went wrong. There must be an independent investigation conducted by a third-party entity, not the Department of Corrections. We also need an autopsy by an independent pathologist and full transparency about the results of its findings. Additionally, 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."

At issue is not a question of guilt, but rather the means by which the state legitimates the practice of capital punishment. Protections that are written into the highest law of the land, the US Constitution, are the means of doing so.

When states fail to live up to the standard of law, that legitimacy is thrown into question. Lockett and Warner have not contested their guilt, but only the process by which justice was to be administered. The actions state's court of appeals, the governor, and the attorney general, which prevented a thorough examination of the drugs and processes used in the executions, cast a shadow of illegitimacy over the state-sanctioned taking of a human life.