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Botched Oklahoma Execution Raises Concerns

Questions increase over drugs used in lethal injections


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A botched execution in Oklahoma has raised concerns over new drugs being used during lethal injections and questions about the sources of those drugs. The first of two scheduled executions began on April 29, 2014, when a medical technician inserted an intravenous line into Clayton D. Lockett. Unnamed officials administered a combination of drugs and Lockett was declared unconscious. However, Lockett lived for 43 minutes after he received the first drug. Before the blinds were closed, he gasped and said a few words, according to witnesses.

Lockett's body then began to twitch and the scene quickly became chaotic, according to Lockett’s attorney, Dean Sanderford. In a statement, Director of Corrections Robert Patton said, “the line had blown, his vein exploded,” meaning the drugs administered were no longer going into Lockett’s vein. The execution was halted. Lockett died of a heart attack there in the chamber.

Second Execution Delayed

After Lockett’s botched execution, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin agreed to delay the second execution scheduled for that evening, this one for convicted murderer and rapist Charles Warner. Later that night, Gov. Fallin said, “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.” Lockett had been convicted of shooting and burying a 19-year-old girl alive in 1999. Warner had been convicted of the rape and murder of an 11-month old girl. Before the incident, Gov. Fallin stated, “Two men that do not contest their guilt in heinous murders will now face justice.” Warner's execution would be delayed for 14 days.

The incident came after the state’s long struggle to execute the two men. Part of the struggle was due to a shortage in execution drugs. Earlier in April, the state’s Corrections Department announced that it would use an untried drug combination in the executions, but would not disclose the source of the new drugs. First, Lockett was injected with midazolam, a benzodiazepine, used to make a prisoner unconscious. Next came an injection of vecuronium bromide, used to stop breathing. Finally, potassium chloride was used to stop the heart. Midazolam had never been used as the first element in this drug combination in Oklahoma. The combination had been used in Florida, but with a much higher dose of midazolam.

Unknown Drug Source

Opponents of lethal injection have voiced concerns about quality control because Oklahoma, like other states, has gone to unknown sources due to the drug shortages. After opponents raised their concerns, Oklahoma said the drugs were provided by a federally approved manufacturer, but still did not identify the source.

According to Oklahoma state officials, the drugs had not expired, were from licensed pharmacies, and had been obtained legally. However, lawyers for both convicts said it was impossible to know if the drugs were safe without supplier information. The day after the incident, White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a news conference, “We have a fundamental standard in this country that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely -- and I think everyone would recognize that this case fell short of that standard.”

Cases in Other States

Other states have also refused to identify their sources for new drugs used in lethal injections. In 2013, Georgia passed a “confidential state secret” law so it wouldn’t have to disclose information about lethal drug suppliers. The new law has been challenged in a state court. There has also been a challenge in Texas' Supreme Court because that state has also refused to name the source of its new lethal drug combination.

Earlier in 2014, according to witnesses, convicted rapist and murderer, Dennis McGuire gasped and convulsed for ten minutes during his lethal injection in Ohio. Ohio used a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone, a painkiller. After McGuire’s execution, his family filed a lawsuit against the state over the execution protocol used.

Lethal injection has long been considered the most humane method of execution. But Lockett’s botched execution, the mystery around the new drugs being used, and the source of those drugs will certainly cause more questions and challenges in the future.

by Jennie Wood

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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