Clayton Lockett execution: Oklahomans left stunned after criticism of botched execution

Many in the state support the death penalty, but question the use of lethal injection after the 38-year-old inmate died of an apparent heart attack

Katie Zezima
Tuesday 06 May 2014 10:22 BST
Death watch: The execution chamber and anteroom at Oklahoma State Penitentiary
Death watch: The execution chamber and anteroom at Oklahoma State Penitentiary

Geneva Miller was a bit annoyed as she dug into a sandwich at the Heavenly Delights bakery, where wooden signs line the walls bearing affirmations of food and family.

She could not believe that her state, Oklahoma, with its strong support for capital punishment, was being pilloried across the nation, and the world, because of one botched execution. "We're just crazy about how everybody thinks Oklahoma is bad for supporting the death penalty," she said. "We just don't understand how they could think otherwise – that it wouldn't be right."

New details continued to spill out last week about the fumbled execution of inmate Clayton Lockett, 38, who died of an apparent heart attack on Tuesday after authorities halted a lethal injection that caused him to convulse and a vein to burst. The case prompted state officials to order a review of the way executions are carried out and has revived a national debate over whether the death penalty is inhumane.

Late on Friday, President Barack Obama, who supports the death penalty for heinous crimes including mass murder, said the Oklahoma case was "extremely troubling" and should prompt a re-examination of the way executions were carried out. There were now "significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied" across the US, Mr Obama said, adding that he would ask the Attorney General, Eric Holder, to investigate problems surrounding its application. "And this situation in Oklahoma, I think, just highlights some of the … the significant problems there," Mr Obama added.

But for Ms Miller and many other Oklahomans, Lockett – who shot and ordered the live burial of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman – got exactly what he deserved.

"It's like the Lord said: 'You reap what you sow'," said one customer who had just finished eating at a diner in Checotah, Oklahoma. At the Harbor Mountain Coffee House in McAlester, about two miles from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, the site of the botched execution, customer James Barr said: "I think he got what's coming to him."

For McAlester, a town of 18,000 about 90 miles south of Tulsa, executions have become a routine occurrence at the hulking white penitentiary and its outbuildings, all surrounded by a high fence and barbed wire, on the edge of town.

Travis Boatner, as he scrubbed the coffee shop's white walls and swept the floor behind the counter, said people had been talking about the Lockett execution but that there was little argument. "There's really not much of a debate," he said. "This is the part of the country where people pretty much argue an eye for an eye."

Lockett was convicted of murder and other charges, including rape, in 2000 after he and two accomplices attacked two young women, one of whom – Ms Neiman – Lockett shot twice. Lockett then ordered his accomplices to bury her alive, witnesses said.

Capital punishment is broadly popular in Oklahoma, where voters chose the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney by a two-to-one margin over Mr Obama in the 2012 presidential election. Governor Mary Fallin and other Republicans dominate state politics.

However, Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said there would "definitely be litigation" in the aftermath of Lockett's death. He added that however popular capital punishment remained in the state, the death had sparked concerns among proponents about how the process was carried out. "This brings up the question, is there a humane way to deliberately take the life of a person?" he said.

The execution saw the use of a drug combination that had not previously been used in the state. Lockett convulsed violently during the execution and tried to lift his head after a doctor had declared him unconscious, then died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began.

Aaron Totani, a massage therapist from McAlester, said he was a proponent of capital punishment and believed that prisons should bring back chain gangs. But he voiced concern over the bungled execution and how Lockett may have been treated beforehand. Officials said Lockett was Tasered and refused food in the hours before his death.

During the execution, medical officials struggled to find a suitable vein, and a doctor ended up inserting the IV needle into Lockett's groin. Mr Totani wondered whether Lockett was properly hydrated, as a lack of fluids can cause veins to collapse. The botching of the execution, he said, was "a bit torturous".

Ron Grubis, a retired high school principal and a staunch supporter of capital punishment, asked: "Why is it so hard to kill anybody with drugs? Shouldn't it be simple?" Death row inmates should be able to choose how they died, he said. "We can go back to giving people a choice. Let's go back to the firing squad. There's no such thing as a totally painless execution."

The Oklahoma State Penitentiary was depicted in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as the prison from which Tom Joad is released. It was also the site of one of the worst prison riots in US history when, in 1973, three inmates died after the prison was set ablaze.

Richard Coleman, a retired police officer from Tulsa, said he supported the death penalty for heinous crimes. He has met prisoners and brought teenagers to the prison as part of a "scared straight" programme. The students are shown "Sparky", the disabled electric chair, in a museum on the prison grounds.

But Mr Coleman said his decades in law enforcement had led him to believe that the state was too concerned with locking people up and not enough with rehabilitation. And while he thinks lethal injection is the most humane way to kill someone, the problems with it are troubling. "Oklahoma has a bad enough reputation. We don't need this," he said. "People think we're rednecks and everything. Let's get this right."

© Washington Post

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