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Botched Oklahoma execution sparks outrage, might bring changes

5/1/2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (MCT) -- After a grisly history of electrocutions, gassings, hangings and firing squads, it is the cold, quiet science of lethal injections that has become America's most common and favored method of executing its worst criminals.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled six years ago such injections did not violate the Constitution's provisions against cruel and unusual punishment, clearing the way for states to administer the lethal cocktails under their own, sometimes secretive, protocols.

But a gruesome lethal injection gone wrong in Oklahoma has dealt death penalty supporters a potentially stunning setback this week, coming at a time when popular support for capital punishment has fallen and reliable lethal-injection chemicals are becoming harder and harder to get.

Clayton Lockett's unwieldy execution has triggered an already controversial internal investigation and prompted calls for a lethal-injection moratorium across the U.S., with experts predicting the Supreme Court will face greater pressure to rule on whether states can refuse to tell inmates the makeup of the drugs being used to end their lives.

"The public has a right to know how we are carrying out this very grave responsibility of the state," said Oklahoma state Sen. Connie Johnson, one of several state lawmakers calling Wednesday for a yearlong moratorium on executions in the state. "This is the worst thing that the government does. This ought to be the most transparent."

On Tuesday night, as witnesses watched from a prison viewing gallery in McAlester, executioners injected an experimental cocktail of lethal drugs into Lockett's body.

The 38-year-old murderer was supposed to fall asleep before the drugs stopped his heart.

Instead, according to officials, one of Lockett's veins exploded, sending the inmate into a writhing, gasping fit that ended more than half an hour later with a fatal heart attack.

News of Lockett's bizarre demise drew instant criticism from death penalty opponents and even a rebuke from the White House on Wednesday.

"We have a fundamental standard in this country that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. "I think everyone would recognize that this case fell short of that standard."

Much of the criticism was directed at Oklahoma state officials, who had waged a long and extraordinary struggle to execute Lockett without providing details on the origin or quality of their lethal-injection drugs to his attorneys.

"The debacle in Oklahoma reveals the consequences of allowing execution protocols to remain secret," said University of Houston law professor David Dow. "The responsibility for inflicting this torture is widely shared by prosecutors, prison officials, judges and politicians, including the governor and attorney general in Oklahoma."

If there is such a thing as sympathetic death row inmates, Lockett probably wasn't among them. One night in 1999, Lockett kidnapped, raped and shot a young woman named Stephanie Neiman. He later coolly told investigators how he had watched his accomplices bury her alive, covering her in dirt as she gasped for life.

To execute Lockett, conservative state officials, led by Gov. Mary Fallin, ultimately forced (and won) a constitutional showdown with one of the state's highest courts over whether the state could be trusted to carry out the execution without complying with the defense's demands for details on where they obtained the drugs to be used.