The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

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April 30, 2014

Governor orders review of execution

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Mary Fallin ordered a thorough review Wednesday of the botched lethal drug execution of a convicted murderer that left him writhing and grunting.

But the governor said executions will continue in Oklahoma, and the review by the state Department of Public Safety is to determine if medical and other protocols were followed in the failed execution of Clayton D. Lockett.

Lockett, 38, was the first of two planned executions Tuesday night at the state prison in McAlester. Twenty minutes into the drug injection procedure, he began to lift his body from the gurney and grunt, according to gallery witnesses.

At that point, the procedure was stopped, the blinds drawn on the death chamber, and witnesses later said Lockett died shortly afterward of a massive heart attack.

Fallin promptly ordered a two-week stay for the execution of the second inmate, Charles F. Warner, who was scheduled to be put to death two hours after Lockett.

She said Warner would be executed on May 13 unless the review and assessment of Lockett’s death were not completed by then. There are another 50 convicts on death row in Oklahoma awaiting execution.

“His fellow Oklahomans have sentenced him to death,” Fallin said in brief remarks to a room full of media. “We expect the sentence to be carried out as required by law.”

Lockett’s bungled execution stoked the national debate over capital punishment, and whether lethal injections violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Even the White House weighed in, with presidential press secretary Jay Carney criticizing the execution.

“We have a fundamental standard in this country that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely,” said Carney. “I think everyone would recognize that this case fell short of that standard.”

Lockett was administered three drugs: midazolam, a sedative to cause unconsciousness; vecuronium to relax the body’s muscles; and potassium chloride to stop the heart from beating.

Robert Patton, director of the state Department of Corrections, said the first drug took longer than expected to take effect on Lockett. He said the process took an unexpected turn during administration of the last two drugs when Lockett’s vein with the intravenous line “blew out,” or collapsed.

He said that’s when he stopped the procedure and ordered the blinds drawn on the gallery of witnesses. He said Lockett, still unconscious, died about 20 minutes later of a heart attack.

One of the 12 media witnesses, Ziva Branstetter of the Tulsa World, said Lockett was “grimacing, grunting and lifting his head and shoulders entirely up from the gurney” before the process halted. She said he mumbled “man” and appeared to be in pain.

“Reporters exchanged shocked glances,” wrote Branstetter. “Nothing like this has happened at an execution any of us has witnessed since 1990, when the state resumed executions using lethal injection.”

Warner’s attorney, David Autry, another witness, described the scene as “horrible. It was totally botched.” He demanded the state halt all executions.

State Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, demanded the state issue a moratorium on the death penalty, at least until an agency independent of the state conducts an investigation. She feared the Department of Public Safety review would be “subject to the same pressure” as the court’s highest justices were in the roller-coaster days leading up to Lockett’s execution.

In a last-minute civil appeal, both Lockett and Warner sued, demanding the state disclose details about the execution drugs. The state Supreme Court issued a stay, which it later lifted, but not before Fallin weighed in and issued a stay and state legislators began demanding the justices be impeached. The court later lifted its stay and found the men were not entitled to learn the source of the drugs.

“What we saw was a state out of control. The Legislature being out of its role. The governor being out of her role,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “Because they exercised this hubris, they didn’t do that self-examination that could have prevented this from happening.”

Richard Dieter, executive director of the national Death Penalty Information Center, said there are a lot of unanswered questions.

He wondered why Lockett’s vein couldn’t hold the liquid, was he really unconscious when the deadly drug was administered, why the doctor couldn’t properly insert the IV, why there wasn’t a backup plan in place and why Lockett was ultimately allowed to die of a heart attack with medical personnel there.

“I think this was a homicide by incompetence,” he said. “It was a total breakdown with worst case scenarios. This is definitely an embarrassment for Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma isn’t alone in struggling to find a humane concoction of lethal drugs. European companies, which traditionally have manufactured the drugs, have been pulling out on moral grounds, leaving states across the country scrambling to find a source of the drugs.

“Supplies of these drugs are getting very scarce,” said Brady Henderson, legal director at ACLU of Oklahoma. “So states are having to experiment with these drugs.”

He said inmates are starting to become “human guinea pigs,” as states attempt to find alternative solutions to the drug shortage.

“What we want to see is to make sure executions are shut down until the public and inmates themselves know they are going to carried out in a manner that follows that Constitution,” Henderson said, adding that cruel and unusual punishment is illegal. “They’re keeping so many things secret (about the process and the source of the drugs) it’s really hard to tell what could happen at the next execution.”

But he said the botched execution was a “black-eye,” and is attracting media attention worldwide “because they think it’s horrible” and that it made Oklahoma look incompetent.

Sean Wallace, director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, the group that represents corrections officers across the state, said the Lockett experience should not be blamed on prison employees.

“I think the state is at fault for this,” Wallace said. “Whatever you think about the death penalty, our officers are carrying out the duty they’re ordered to do. The people need to look at the process and the governor’s office. (Our employees) are following the law and what’s being asked of them by the governor. The DOC is already in a horrible situation and I think this just makes it worse.”

The Department of Corrections did not return messages seeking comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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