Oklahoma’s Lethal Injection Mess Complicates Capital Punishment Debate

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Clayton Lockett was one of two scheduled executions to take place on Tuesday and drew national attention after the lethal injection was reportedly botched. Lockett survived 43 minutes longer than the drugs should have allowed and eventually died of a heart attack after convulsing on the table before his death. He was still speaking long after the first of the drugs administered should have rendered him unconscious. He was sentenced to death after being convicted of rape, kidnapping, robbery, and murder in the first-degree of Stephanie Nieman, a teenage girl.

The execution was one that previously had received note because the court had granted him a temporary stay based on a long battle in court over whether or not the state could retain secrecy about its lethal injection process. Madeline Cohen, one of Oklahoma’s assistant federal public defenders, said that it’s easy to understand how those hurt by such crimes wouldn’t want to give “them a humane death when they didn’t give their victim a humane death,” but she emphasized the importance of keeping government in check with the Constitution. “States have turned to secrecy in the face of drug shortages,” she said, according to Tulsa World. “It’s a reaction to this combination of poorly experimental execution procedures and some frighteningly botched executions.”

This was before the execution took place and drew further significance to the issue. Now, the second convict scheduled for execution that day, Charles Warner, who was convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend’s 11-month-old daughter, had his execution put off that day. Cohen, who represents Warner, said that seeing as “something went horribly awry” in Lockett’s execution they will be revisiting the issue in court, according to CNN. “Oklahoma cannot carry out further executions until there’s transparency in this process … Oklahoma needs to take a step back,” she said.

The drug’s failure to provide a simple and humane death for Lockett is serving as the catalyst for legal action, but it’s not the only arm raised against the death penalty process. The issue of drug shortages stems from a problem with drug companies who are not supplying the drugs needed for state executions. According to The Economist, the drug sodium thiopental, which is used to knock out the individual before pancuronium bromide is used to stop breathing and potassium chloride used to cease beating of the heart, has stopped being produced in the United States.

The only American company making sodium thiopental stopped production out of fear that European companies would do as they have in the past and take issue with drugs that are sold to the U.S. and used for executions. As a result, other drugs have begun to be put into use, but these are less-reliable, or at least less well known. For example, after pentobarbital was used rather than sodium thiopental in the case of Michael Wilson, who was executed in Oklahoma, he said, “I feel my whole body burning,” before he died. While the three drug cocktail used in the past has survived legal challenges for cruel and unusual punishment, these newer drugs leave room for lawsuits, such as will likely be seen as a result of Lockett’s death.

What’s more, even if laws are still allow for lethal injection, the rate of capital punishment in the U.S. is significantly falling, down to a potential thirty-three this year, the lowest since 1994 — though the U.S. execution rates are still higher than most other countries, with the exception of China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. This is likely in large part a result of a parallel fall in the homicide rate in the U.S., but there are also concerns over the expense, morality, and what other options might be better. For example, life-without-parole sentences have increased in states such as Texas, while death penalties are decreasing.

You saw a decrease in prosecutors even bringing death-penalty cases,” said Craig Watkins, DA in Dallas County, to The Economist. “Now you have a choice. Before, you didn’t.”

Also under consideration more and more is the number of mistaken convictions — the uncertainty factor likely making a life-without-parole sentence more attractive to go after than a death sentence.

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