, Muskogee, OK

May 1, 2014

State to review procedures, continue executions

Fallin postpones next one to May 13 at earliest

By Janelle Stecklein

— OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Mary Fallin ordered a thorough review Wednesday of the botched execution by lethal drugs of a murderer who was left writhing and grunting during the procedure.

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

Lockett, 38, was the first of two killers scheduled for execution Tuesday night at Oklahoma State Penitentiary 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, and the blinds were drawn on the death chamber. Authorities later told witnesses that Lockett died shortly afterward of a massive heart attack.

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

She said Warner would be executed May 13 unless the review and assessment of Lockett’s death were not completed by then.

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

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

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

Three drugs were used on Lockett: midazolam, a sedative to cause unconsciousness; vecuronium, to relax the muscles, and potassium chloride, to stop the heart.

Robert Patton, the director of the state Department of Corrections, said the first drug took longer than expected to take effect. 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” – collapsed.

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

Warner’s attorney, David Autry, 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 said 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 to Lockett’s execution.

In a last-minute civil appeal, Lockett and Warner demanded that the state disclose details about the execution drugs. The Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay, which it later lifted, but not before Fallin issued a stay and state legislators began demanding that the justices be impeached. The court later lifted its stay and found that 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, the executive director of 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.”

Oklahoma isn’t alone in struggling to find a humane concoction of lethal drugs. European companies, which have traditionally 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, the legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma. “So states are having to experiment with these drugs.”

This story contains information from The Associated Press.

Janelle Stecklein is the Oklahoma state reporter for CNHI.