Oklahoma prison officials halted an inmate’s execution after a new drug combination left the man writhing and clenching his teeth on the gurney. He later died of a heart attack.
Clayton Lockett, 38, was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of three drugs in the state’s new lethal injection combination was administered Tuesday evening. Three minutes later, he began breathing heavily, writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow.
The blinds were eventually lowered to prevent those in the viewing gallery from watching what was happening in the death chamber, and the state’s top prison official eventually called a halt to the proceedings. Lockett died of a heart attack a short time later, the Department of Corrections said.
“It was a horrible thing to witness. This was totally botched,” said Lockett’s attorney, David Autry.
Death Penalty Debate
The problems with the execution are likely to fuel more debate about the ability of states to administer lethal injections that meet the U.S. Constitution’s requirement they be neither cruel nor unusual punishment.
That question has drawn renewed attention from defense attorneys and death penalty opponents in recent months, as several states scrambled to find new sources of execution drugs because drugmakers that oppose capital punishment – many based in Europe – have stopped selling to U.S. prisons and corrections departments.
‘Botched from Beginning to End’
“They should have anticipated possible problems with an untried execution protocol,” Autry said. “Obviously the whole thing was gummed up and botched from beginning to end. Halting the execution obviously did Lockett no good.”
Republican Gov. Mary Fallin ordered a 14-day stay of execution for an inmate who was scheduled to die two hours after Lockett, Charles Warner. She also ordered the state’s Department of Corrections to conduct a “full review of Oklahoma’s execution procedures to determine what happened and why during this evening’s execution.”
Robert Patton, the department’s director, halted Lockett’s execution about 20 minutes after the first drug, midazolam, was administered. He later said there had been vein failure.
The execution began at 6:23 p.m., when officials began administering the drug. A doctor declared Lockett to be unconscious at 6:33 p.m.
Once an inmate is declared unconscious, the state’s execution protocol calls for the second drug, a paralytic, to be administered. The third drug in the protocol is potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Patton said the second and third drugs were being administered when a problem was noticed. He said it’s unclear how much of the drugs made it into the inmate’s system.
Lockett began writhing at 6:36. At 6:39, a doctor lifted the sheet that was covering the inmate to examine the injection site.
“There was some concern at that time that the drugs were not having that [desired] effect, and the doctor observed the line at that time and determined the line had blown,” Patton said at a news conference afterward, referring to Lockett’s vein rupturing.
After an official lowered the blinds, Patton made a series of phone calls before calling a halt to the execution.
“After conferring with the warden, and unknown how much drugs went into him, it was my decision at that time to stop the execution,” he told reporters.
Lockett was declared dead at 7:06 p.m.
Autry, Lockett’s attorney, was immediately skeptical of the department’s determination that the issue was limited to a problem with Lockett’s vein.
“I’m not a medical professional, but Mr. Lockett was not someone who had compromised veins,” Autry said. “He was in very good shape. He had large arms and very prominent veins.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, which was not a party in the legal challenge to the state’s execution law, called for an immediate moratorium on state executions.
“This evening we saw what happens when we allow the government to act in secret at its most powerful moment and the consequences of trading due process for political posturing,” said ACLU executive director Ryan Kiesel.
A four-time felon, Lockett was convicted of shooting 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman and watching as two accomplices buried her alive in rural Kay County in 1999. Neiman and a friend had interrupted the men as they robbed a home.
Warner had been scheduled to be executed two hours later in the same room and on the same gurney. The 46-year-old was convicted of raping and killing his roommate’s 11-month-old daughter in 1997. He has maintained his innocence.
Lockett and Warner had sued the state for refusing to disclose details about the execution drugs, including where Oklahoma obtained them.