Botched Executions Raise Concerns

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Questions increase over drugs used in lethal injections

Related Links

Botched executions in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Arizona have raised concerns over new drugs being used during lethal injections and questions about the sources of those drugs. On April 29, 2014, a medical technician inserted an intravenous line into Clayton D. Lockett. 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.

After Lockett's execution, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin agreed to delay a second execution scheduled for that evening. 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.

Earlier in April, Oklahoma'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.

Similar Problems in Other States

In January 2014 in Ohio, Dennis McGuire, a convicted rapist and murderer, gasped and convulsed for ten minutes during his lethal injection. 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.

In July, another execution went wrong. The execution of convicted murderer Joseph Wood took nearly two hours: it began at 4:52 p.m. ET and he was declared dead at 6:49 p.m. ET. According to his lawyer, Dale Baich, Wood "gasped and struggled to breathe for about an hour and 40 minutes." Days before his execution, his lawyers asked corrections officials for information about the drugs that would be used for his execution. They refused to provide details about the source of the drugs—midazolam and hydromorphone— or who would administer them, and a federal appeals court delayed the execution until the information was released. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, overruled the lower court and allowed the execution to proceed.

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.“

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.

Lethal injection has long been considered the most humane method of execution. But the botched executions, 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
Sources +