Thursday, May 1, 2014

A science experiment gone wrong

“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. The greatest power any government has over an individual is to take that person’s life. More than any other power, the exercise of the power to kill must be accompanied by due process and transparency. 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. This is not about whether these two men are guilty; that is not in dispute. Rather, it comes down to whether we trust the government enough to allow it to kill its citizens, even guilty ones, in a secret process.” 
-- Ryan Kiessel, Executive Director, ACLU of Oklahoma
The back story to Oklahoma's botched execution of Clayton Lockett gets worse the more one looks at the sequence of events that led to Mr. Lockett's heart attack.

Attorneys for Mr. Lockett and Charles Warner (who was also scheduled to be murdered on Tuesday) filed a lawsuit challenging Oklahoma's secrecy law regarding the acquisition of drugs used for executing prisoners. Oklahoma County District Judge Patricia Parrish issued a stay after finding the law was unconstitutional as it served to limit inmates' access to the courts.

On April 21, the Oklahoma state Supreme Court upheld Judge Parrish's stay until such time as the legal issues regarding the state's secrecy law could be determined. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin then issued an executive order stating that the state's Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction over the matter and rescheduled the executions for April 29. On April 23, under pressure from state officials, the Supreme Court reversed itself and ruled that condemned inmates had no right to know from where the state obtained the drugs it intended to use to kill them.

Oklahoma, like Texas, has a bifurcated court system. In both states the Supreme Court hears civil matters while criminal matters are argued before the Court of Criminal Appeals. In this case the CCA said it didn't have the authority to hear the matter because the case was filed as a civil suit so the Supreme Court took up the case under a "rule of necessity."

In the meantime, Republican state Representative Mike Christian threatened to seek impeachment of the judges who voted in favor of staying the execution saying the Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds. It was after this threat that the high court reversed itself and allowed the execution to proceed.

Gov. Fallin has called for an investigation into what happened on Tuesday night. If the investigation is run under the aegis of the state there will always be doubt about its conclusions. The only way to conduct a proper investigation is for it to be independent of state interests. Of course, if the reason for the investigation is to find out how the state can go about killing inmates more efficiently then it really doesn't matter who conducts it.

The official explanation for Mr. Lockett's death is that he suffered a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began and that the execution was halted when a doctor determined that the vein into which the drugs were being pumped had "exploded."

If we accept that explanation we still don't know if the problem was caused by the incompetence of the staff carrying out the execution, because of a medical condition affecting Mr. Lockett's veins or because the drugs didn't do what they were supposed to do. From media accounts of the execution, Mr. Lockett was still conscious and mumbling when the blinds were drawn.

Since one of the drugs in the lethal cocktail was designed to stop Mr. Lockett's heart, we can assume that it did it's job. We can also assume that Mr. Lockett suffered pain in the aftermath of the state's science experiment gone wrong. Regardless of how state officials wish to characterize what happened on Wednesday, Mr. Lockett was tortured and murdered at the hands of the state.

Here is a round-up of some additional coverage of Oklahoma's botched execution.

"Execution chaos: Witness recounts botched killing that caused Okla. prisoner's fatal heart attack," Democracy Now! (Apr. 30, 2014)

"Oklahoma execution prompts investigation," Here & Now (Apr. 30, 2014)

"Eyewitness account: A minute-by-minute look at what happened during Clayton Lockett's execution," Ziva Branstetter, Tulsa World (Apr. 30, 2014)

"Execution failure in Oklahoma: Clayton Lockett dies of heart attack after vein explodes," Graham Lee Brewer, NewsOK (Apr. 30, 2014)

"Botched Oklahoma execution prompts questions about lethal injection," Scott Neuman, The Two-Way (Apr. 30, 2014)

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