By Janelle Stecklein
McALESTER — Black-hooded executioners passing through the halls of Oklahoma State Penitentiary on execution day form one of Randy Lopez’s most vivid memories during the years he worked on death row.
Lopez, now retired from the Department of Corrections, said he never knew who was under the hoods. Executioners’ identities — even genders — were close secrets kept from everyone including those responsible for guarding death row.
In a further measure to protect their identities, the people whose job it was to push the plungers filled with lethal drugs were always first to arrive before an execution, Lopez said.
They were led to an anteroom next to the execution chamber, out of the view of witnesses.
They were also the last to leave.
Oklahoma has executed 96 prisoners since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, and the execution ritual at the penitentiary in McAlester is proscribed by policies that detail everything including the shoes a condemned prisoner must wear.
But key parts including the names of major players — phlebotomists, doctors who monitor the procedure and executioners — are kept secret by courts and state law.
Problems that delayed and ultimately led prison officials to halt the execution of Clayton Lockett, 38, on April 29 have intensified calls for transparency from death penalty opponents. Lockett died of an apparent heart attack shortly after the procedure was stopped, state officials said.
Brady Henderson, the legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, said that although some parts of the execution are clear, many others are hidden behind a “wall of secrecy.” The public, he said, doesn’t know who’s involved, what training they receive, how much they get paid, the source of the lethal drugs or the drugs’ purity.
“There are even a lot of controls that people working there at the prison have no idea who they are,” he said.
Henderson said courts, at least, must be told which pharmacy supplies the execution drugs and whether the phlebotomist who inserts IVs into the prisoner is properly certified. Strange things can happen if drugs are not administered correctly, he said.
“You can have a drug that is essentially a different drug when it hits your bloodstream,” he said. “You can have a lot of bizarre things happen.”
Such questions of transparency stalled Lockett’s execution for months as well as that of Charles Warner, who had been scheduled to die the same night. Lawyers for both fought to learn the supplier of a drug — the benzodiazepine called midazolam — that the state planned to use in its three-drug lethal injection cocktail for the first time.
Gov. Mary Fallin eventually ordered the executions to proceed.
Lockett’s did not go as expected. A phlebotomist was unable to find a viable vein for the IV used to administer the lethal drugs anywhere but in Lockett’s groin, according to a description later released by the Department of Corrections.
Prison officials said the vein collapsed during the execution. Although the midazolam was supposed to render Lockett unconscious, witnesses described him as writhing, grimacing and grunting in apparent pain before the procedure was stopped.
Lockett died more than 40 minutes after the first drugs were injected. His body was sent to Dallas for an autopsy.
Warner has since received a 180-day stay of execution.
Lopez, who spent nearly two decades as a guard at OSP, including two years on death row, said condemned prisoners, including Lockett, seem to display “a lot more showmanship” than those who preceded them.
“Generally, as a rule back when I was there, inmates took pride in walking into the death chamber like a man,” he said. “They didn’t fight.”
Lockett — who had been sentenced to die for his role in a kidnapping, rape and murder in June 1999 — started his last day fighting, prompting prison officials to subdue him with a Taser, according to the DOC statement. He had cut his arm and refused all food, including his last meal.
A secret process
The penitentiary changes on the day of an execution, said Lopez, who described how guards lock down death row so there’s no opportunity for other inmates to protest.
As the condemned walks toward the execution chamber, Lopez said it’s not unusual for other inmates to kick their doors — a show of respect.
Many aspects of what happens are detailed in more than 30 pages of procedure released by the department.
Lockett, for instance, would have undergone a full-body X-ray to search for contraband. He would have received two sets of clothing including shorts, pants, shirts, socks and shoes — and a mattress, sheets and blanket — after he was led to a holding cell about 10 feet from the execution chamber.
He would have been guarded at all times by at least three officers, none of whom would participate in the execution. He was not allowed personal property other than religious materials, family photos and legal materials. He would have been dressed in scrubs and tennis shoes before being restrained on the gurney and prepared for the lethal injection.
Retired OSP warden Randall Workman, who did not oversee the Lockett execution but presided over 32 others during his five years in charge of the prison, said he would begin execution days about 4 a.m.
“It’s a very arduous and very detailed day,” he said.
The warden is tasked with handling all the logistics — including making arrangements for visitors and refreshments. Prison personnel are responsible for obtaining enough execution drugs, according to the policy.
The DOC gives itself up to five alternatives for a lethal injection. The procedure states: “The warden shall have the sole discretion as to which lethal agent will be used for the scheduled execution.”
Some alternatives involve a one-drug concoction, although the state traditionally uses a three-drug combination.
Workman said each component is lethal. The first drug is meant to induce unconsciousness, the second is a paralytic, and the third is designed to stop the heart. But in many executions he oversaw, Workman said, the first drug would immediately cause death.
It also falls to current Warden Anita Trammell to line up medical personnel and three executioners for each procedure. Workman said each executioner has a different drug in a plunger and administers it when instructed by prison staff.
The state’s policy stipulates only that the phlebotomist must be qualified, the physician monitoring the procedure must be licensed, and no one’s identity may be disclosed. The rest is up to the warden.
Janelle Stecklein is the Oklahoma state reporter for CNHI.