The slow, horrifying death of an Oklahoma inmate following a botched lethal injection has raised fresh questions about the drugs used to carry out capital punishment in the US.
Convicted murderer Clayton Lockett, who was 38, died of a heart attack more than 40 minutes after his execution began on Tuesday evening. Lockett reportedly writhed, gasped and cried out “Oh man” during the ordeal, despite having been declared unconscious by a doctor.
Robert Patton, Oklahoma’s top prison official, halted the execution after 20 minutes, saying the lethal injection failed to work because Lockett’s vein had “exploded”.
The injection contained a triple-drug cocktail in dosages that had never previously been used for a US execution. The state’s governor, Mary Fallin, ordered an investigation into the bungled procedure, and postponed by 14 days the lethal injection of a second convicted murderer scheduled to die on the same night. Last night the White House said that the botched execution fell short of humane standards.
Lockett was convicted with two co-defendants for the 1999 murder of teenager Stephanie Nieman, who was shot and buried alive in a shallow grave.
His execution began at 6.23pm on Tuesday, when officials administered a sedative. Over the past five years, executions by lethal injection in Oklahoma have lasted an average of six minutes, yet when a doctor asked Lockett whether he was unconscious after seven minutes, he reportedly replied: “No, I’m not.”
After 10 minutes, at 6.33pm, the doctor declared Lockett unconscious, which meant officials could administer the two remaining lethal drugs. Yet a further three minutes later, the inmate began breathing heavily, grimacing and convulsing on the gurney. Witnesses said he tried to speak three times – two utterances were unintelligible, the third, simply: “Oh man.” Sixteen minutes into the execution, officials closed the curtains dividing the dying Lockett from the public and press in the witness gallery.
Not long after that, Mr Patton ordered a halt to the execution. Prison officials reportedly discussed the possibility of moving Lockett to a hospital in order to resuscitate him, but it was too late. The prisoner died from a massive heart attack at 7.06pm, 43 minutes after the first drug had been administered.
Lockett’s lawyer later told reporters that the procedure had been a “horrible thing to witness”. David Autry said: “The whole thing was gummed up and botched from beginning to end... Halting the execution obviously did Lockett no good.”
A lawyer for Charles Warner, the second inmate scheduled to die on Tuesday, told Reuters: “Tonight, Clayton Lockett was tortured to death.”
Warner, 46, was convicted of the rape and murder of his room-mate’s 11-year-old daughter in 1997. His death had been set for 8pm on Tuesday, and would have marked the first double execution in the US since 2000. He was to be put to death on the same gurney upon which Lockett was killed.
The death penalty remains in 32 of the 50 US states, and the standard method of execution is lethal injection using a triple-drug cocktail, a supposedly “humane” practice first introduced in Texas in 1982.
The first of the three drugs administered is a sedative to render the prisoner unconscious; the second is a paralytic to stop them breathing; the third stops the heart, killing them. Without an effective sedative, however, the second and third drugs can cause agonising pain.
In recent years, state authorities have found it increasingly difficult to source the drugs required for lethal injections. European pharmaceutical companies and the EU have withheld the substances traditionally used in executions from export to US death penalty states.
The shortage has slowed the rate of executions, but it has also led states such as Oklahoma to experiment with untested drug combinations, and to obtain drugs from “compounding pharmacies”, which mix up small batches of drugs for specific purposes.
Some states have even maintained the anonymity of their lethal injection drug suppliers. In the lead-up to their scheduled executions, Lockett and Warner had sued Oklahoma for the names of the drugs to be used, and the identity of their suppliers.
The state finally revealed the substances that would make up the experimental three-drug cocktail, including a sedative generally used to treat children. Yet the men’s lawyers maintained that without any information on who manufactured and supplied the drugs, they could not know whether they were safe. Lockett’s death follows a series of other controversial executions. In January in Oklahoma, the lethal injection of 38-year-old convicted murderer Michael Lee Wilson caused outrage after his last words were reported as being: “I feel my whole body burning.” The state did not divulge whether anything went wrong with the injection process.
Also in January, in Ohio, convicted murdered Dennis McGuire gasped and writhed for 10 minutes during his execution, in which yet another untried mix of drugs had been used. Ohio has since announced plans to increase the dosage of death penalty drugs in its lethal injections.
Following Lockett’s death, Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, demanded a moratorium on executions in the state. “In Oklahoma’s haste to conduct a science experiment on two men behind a veil of secrecy, our state has disgraced itself before the nation and world,” he said.
USA Today said Lockett was also denied his final meal request because it exceeded the state’s $15 (£9) price limit.
Maya Foa, the director of the death penalty team for the UK human rights charity Reprieve, said: “This execution demonstrates that without transparency, there is a far higher risk of causing extreme suffering to the prisoner… To try to present these killings as constitutional demonstrates the fundamental contradiction in the premise of the so-called ‘humane execution’.
“It is also a clear demonstration of why no responsible pharmaceutical firm or pharmacy wants to get involved in selling drugs to executioners.”
Timeline: A botched execution
Doctor declares Lockett unconscious
Lockett is restless.
Doctor discovers a ruptured vein. Curtain drawn.
Lockett dies, reportedly from a heart attack