What Oklahoma Did to Clayton Lockett Ten Years Ago Changed the National Conversation About Botched Executions

Posted in: Criminal Law

Ten years ago, on April 29, 2014, the state of Oklahoma put Clayton Lockett to death. He had been convicted and sentenced for the 1999 murder of Stephanie Neiman, a 19-year-old who graduated from high school two days before she was killed.

Lockett’s execution was, however, horribly botched.

What transpired during the time that Oklahoma prison officials tried to kill Clayton Lockett changed the national conversation about botched executions. It raised the public’s consciousness about what can go wrong during executions and moved the problem of botched executions from the periphery to the center of abolitionist efforts to end capital punishment.

Jeffrey Stern offers a detailed account of the events that transpired on the day of Lockett’s execution. As Stern writes, “Before a team of correctional officers came to get him at 5:06 a.m., he fashioned a noose out of his sheets. He pulled the blade out of a safety razor and made half-inch-long cuts on his arms. He swallowed a handful of pills that he’d been hoarding and pulled a blanket over his head…..”

The officers “tased him and dragged him out” of his cell.

“Eleven hours later, at about 5:20 p.m.,” Stern says, “after a medical examination, X‑rays, eight hours in a holding cell, and a shower, Lockett was brought by a five-member strap-down team into the death chamber.”

According to the paramedic who was in charge of putting an IV in Lockett’s veins, all of the equipment in the death chamber “was … wrong: the saline was packed in bags instead of syringes, the drugs were in syringes that looked smaller than she was used to, and the tubing for the IV was the wrong kind.”

The paramedic nonetheless tried to place the IV three times before asking for help from a doctor who was present. The doctor tried to place the needle into Lockett’s jugular vein, which was hardly standard operating procedure, and the paramedic stuck Lockett three more times on his right arm, failing to secure the IV each time.

The doctor eventually stuck and secured a needle in the femoral vein in Lockett’s groin. That allowed the execution team to start midazolam, the first drug in Oklahoma’s three-drug protocol.

But, as Stern observes, “not all of it went straight into his bloodstream. Somehow, the IV dislodged, and midazolam was pumped into Lockett’s tissue instead of his vein. Some of the drug would make its way into his bloodstream, but the smaller dose would be less effective.”

When the second drug started to flow, Lockett lurched up against the restraints. “He struggled violently, twisting his whole body.”

Eventually the governor’s office authorized Robert Patton, the Corrections Department Director, to stop the execution due to what Patton called a “vein failure.” He announced that Lockett died minutes after the execution was stopped of a “massive heart attack.”

However, the official autopsy would later list the cause of Lockett’s death as “judicial execution by lethal injection.”

What happened to Lockett made headlines around the world. As law professor Corinna Barrett Lain observes, “The press had a field day…. As the incident began to draw worldwide attention, the White House press secretary issued a statement: ‘We have a fundamental standard in this country that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely—and I think everyone would recognize that this case fell short of that standard.’”

Before Lockett, botched executions did not get much traction in arguments about why the death penalty should be ended. They did not pose a serious challenge to the continuing viability of death as a punishment. In both law and popular culture, botched executions generally were dismissed as isolated accidents, aberrations, and as symptoms of a system that is merely temporarily “out of order,” not irrevocably flawed.

The public was not deeply troubled by botched executions. As Robert Weisberg, law professor and director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, said in 2009 “public opinion has been little affected by previous cases where executions were botched.”

But as Lain argues, 2014 marked a watershed in the way Americans thought about botched executions. All told, there were four botched executions that year.

Arizona’s Republican Senator John McCain captured the changing national mood when he called 2014’s botched executions “torture.”

Since then, botched executions have fit into a powerful and convincing story of a death penalty system in disarray. They add another component to abolitionist arguments that that system is “broken.”

Along with the all-too-frequent convictions of innocent people accused of capital crimes and the fact of racial discrimination throughout the death penalty system, the frequency of botched executions adds another component to abolitionist arguments.

Lockett’s execution was perhaps the most glaring example in recent history of the fact that we can’t even get things right when we try to put people to death.

So important has the fact of botched executions become in our national conversation about capital punishment, and in abolitionist efforts to end it, that the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization that collects data on capital punishment, dubbed 2022 “The Year of the Botched Execution” in its year-end report.

According to the DPIC, seven of that year’s 20 execution attempts (two were called off before being completed) “were visibly problematic—an astonishing 35%.” It attributed these difficulties to “executioner incompetence, failures to follow protocols or defects in the protocols themselves.”

Little has changed since then.

And, as we learned earlier this month, Black people like Clayton Lockett have disproportionately borne the burden of the repeated mistakes that are made in the execution chamber.

What I wrote in December 2022 remains true on the tenth anniversary of Lockett’s death: “Throughout American history, support for the death penalty has been sustained by the belief that when someone is put to death, the government and citizenry are in a position of moral superiority. Today, failures throughout the death penalty system, including botched executions, expose the hollowness of that hope.”

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