published Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

White House: Oklahoma execution not done humanely

  • photo
    This June 29, 2011, file photo provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections shows Clayton Lockett.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

OKLAHOMA CITY — The execution of an inmate who writhed, clenched his teeth and appeared to struggle before prison officials halted the procedure fell short of the humane standards required when the death penalty is carried out, the White House said Wednesday. The man later died of an apparent heart attack.

Oklahoma officials were conducting an autopsy on Clayton Lockett, who convulsed violently and tried to lift his head after a doctor declared him unconscious. Prison officials halted the execution, in which the state was using a new drug combination for the first time.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama believes evidence shows the death penalty doesn't effectively deter crime, but that some crimes are so heinous that the death penalty is merited.

But Carney says the U.S. has a fundamental standard that the death penalty must be carried out humanely. He said everyone would recognize that this case fell short.

Lockett had been declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of three drugs in the state's new lethal injection combination was administered Tuesday evening. Three minutes later, he began breathing heavily, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head. Officials later blamed a ruptured vein for the problems with the execution, which are likely to fuel more debate about the ability of states to administer lethal injections that meet the U.S. Constitution's requirement they be neither cruel nor unusual punishment.

The blinds eventually were lowered to prevent those in the viewing gallery from watching what was happening in the death chamber, and the state's top prison official later called a halt to the proceedings. Lockett died of a heart attack shortly thereafter, the Department of Corrections said.

"It was a horrible thing to witness. This was totally botched," said Lockett's attorney, David Autry.

Questions about execution procedures have drawn renewed attention from defense attorneys and death penalty opponents in recent months, as several states scrambled to find new sources of execution drugs because drugmakers that oppose capital punishment — many based in Europe — have stopped selling to U.S. prisons and corrections departments.

Defense attorneys have unsuccessfully challenged several states' policies of shielding the identities of the source of their execution drugs. Missouri and Texas, like Oklahoma, have both refused to reveal their sources and both of those states have carried out executions with their new supplies.

Tuesday was the first time Oklahoma used the sedative midazolam as the first element in its execution drug combination. Other states have used it before; Florida administers 500 milligrams of midazolam as part of its three-drug combination. Oklahoma used 100 milligrams of that drug.

"They should have anticipated possible problems with an untried execution protocol," Autry said.

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin ordered a 14-day stay of execution for inmate Charles Warner, who was scheduled to die two hours after Lockett. She also ordered the state's Department of Corrections to conduct a "full review of Oklahoma's execution procedures to determine what happened and why during this evening's execution."

Warner's attorney, Madeline Cohen, demanded the investigation be conducted by an independent third-party entity, not the Department of Corrections.

It is routine for the medical examiner's office to conduct an autopsy on inmates after an execution. The autopsy on Lockett, 38, will include an examination of the injection sites on his arms and a toxicology report to determine what drugs were in his system, medical examiner's spokeswoman Amy Elliott said. The autopsy in Tulsa was expected to last for several hours, Elliott said, and it could take two to four months to complete the toxicology report.

The execution began at 6:23 p.m., when officials began administering the midazolam. A doctor declared Lockett to be unconscious at 6:33 p.m.

Once an inmate is declared unconscious, the state's execution protocol calls for the second drug, a paralytic, to be administered. The third drug in the protocol is potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Patton said the second and third drugs were being administered when a problem was noticed. He said it's unclear how much of the drugs made it into the inmate's system.

Lockett began writhing at 6:36. At 6:39, a doctor lifted the sheet that was covering the inmate to examine the injection site.

"There was some concern at that time that the drugs were not having that (desired) effect, and the doctor observed the line at that time and determined the line had blown," Robert Patton, the department's director, said at a news conference afterward, referring to Lockett's vein rupturing.

After an official lowered the blinds, Patton made a series of phone calls before calling a halt to the execution.

Lockett was declared dead at 7:06 p.m.

Autry was skeptical of the department's determination that the issue was limited to a problem with Lockett's vein.

"I'm not a medical professional, but Mr. Lockett was not someone who had compromised veins," Autry said. "He was in very good shape. He had large arms and very prominent veins."

In Ohio, the January execution of an inmate who made snorting and gasping sounds led to a civil rights lawsuit by his family and calls for a moratorium. That execution also used the drug midazolam, but in a lower dosage than Oklahoma used and as part of a two-drug combination. The state has stood by the execution but said Monday that it's boosting the dosages of its lethal injection drugs.

A four-time felon, Lockett was convicted of shooting 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman and watching as two accomplices buried her alive in rural Kay County in 1999. Neiman and a friend had interrupted the men as they robbed a home.

Warner, 46, had been scheduled to be executed two hours later in the same room and on the same gurney. He was convicted of raping and killing his roommate's 11-month-old daughter in 1997. He has maintained his innocence.

Lockett and Warner had sued the state for refusing to disclose details about the execution drugs, including where Oklahoma obtained them. The case, filed as a civil matter, placed Oklahoma's two highest courts at odds. The state Supreme Court later dismissed the inmates' claim that they were entitled to know the source of the drugs.

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