Botched Execution: The Death that Could Kill Lethal Injection
The horrific execution of Clayton Lockett by lethal injection this spring in Oklahoma took an astonishing 43 minutes to complete. Together with other botched killings, the incident has focused attention on the inexperience and incompetence that now accompanies many executions in America.
On the afternoon of April 29, 2014, a vehicle arrived in the courtyard of the prison in McAlester, Oklahoma to pick up Clayton Lockett. The driver parked in the shadow of the white prison walls. His wait, it turned out, would be longer than anticipated. The vehicle was a hearse.
Behind the wall, at 4:40 p.m., prison guards removed Clayton Lockett's handcuffs and leg irons and forced him to get undressed so that he could take a shower. This is stipulated by the "Procedures for the Execution of Offenders Sentenced to Death." The shower is adjacent to the execution chamber: The purpose of the procedure is to ensure that the execution is clean -- in all respects.
Lockett, wearing scrubs and tennis shoes, was taken into the execution chamber at 5:20 p.m. The five men on the "strap-down team" restrained him to the gurney with seven black straps. He could only move his head at this point. When he turned it to the right, he could see a large, round clock: It was 5:26 p.m. His execution was scheduled to begin in 34 minutes.
Lockett, 38, had been on death row for 13 years. He didn't want to die, at least not in the way the 25-page protocol -- an attempt to provide a bureaucratic framework for dying -- required.
When Locket was picked up for his physical examination 12 hours earlier, at 5:06 a.m., he tried to hide under his blanket. Prison officials used a stun gun to force him to comply. In the medical department, Lockett was X-rayed, again according to a precise protocol, which states that "beginning at the head [the prisoner is to be] X-rayed downward of the body. The X-rays will be taken prior to eating breakfast." The protocol doesn't explain why a person who is to be put to death in a few hours should be X-rayed.
Then Lockett's veins were examined. Officials sometimes have trouble finding a vein, especially when the condemned prisoners are overweight or IV drug users, but Lockett didn't take any drugs, was muscular and exercised daily. On this morning, the examination results stated that his veins were in good condition and readily accessible.
Lockett was scheduled to receive his last meal between noon and 1 p.m. In a "30-day information packet," he had previously been required to enter the "name, address and telephone number of the funeral home that will pick up your remains," as well as his final meal request. He wrote: "Chateaubriand steak (medium rare), shrimp with cocktail sauce, a baked potato, six slices of garlic toast, pecan pie, a liter of Coca-Cola Classic." The prison personnel rejected his request because it exceeded the $15 (12) limit specified under the state's rules for final meals.
"I called the prison warden," says LaDonna Hollins, Lockett's stepmother. "I told her that I would pay every single dollar for this meal, and also, that I could deliver it myself," she adds. She pauses for a moment as her eyes fill with tears. "I could feel the coldness coming through the phone."
A Failed Lawsuit
Clayton Lockett was three when his mother sent him to live with his father, who was living with Hollins. From then on, she was Clayton's closest confidante, and he called her "Mom." On this day, Hollins is sitting in her dark living room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. There are goldfish in the aquarium and there is an open bible on the coffee table in front of her. She visited her stepson two days before the execution. They sat facing each other in the prison's death row wing for three hours, separated by a glass panel, praying and weeping.
At some point, says Hollins, Lockett told her that he didn't fear death, because he deserved it for the brutal murder of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman. "But I'm afraid that they will torture me, that they'll provide me with some kind of rat poison," he told his stepmother. "They don't even know how to insert a needle."
On several occasions, Lockett had heard the moans and screams coming from the execution chamber at the end of the hall. He remembered what Michael Wilson, who had been held in a cell near his, had shouted in January when the poison had been injected into his body: "I feel my whole body burning!"
He had also read in the paper that Oklahoma and other states were no longer getting the lethal injection drugs they had used for many years, after the European Union, partly at the urging of then-German Health Minister Philipp Rösler, had imposed tough restrictions on exporting the compounds. Lockett knew that the authorities had been trying out other drugs since then. He also knew that Dennis McGuire had been in agony for 26 minutes in an Ohio death chamber, gasping for air. In the end, the reasons for botched executions were always the same: the wrong drugs or unqualified personnel, and often both.
That was why Lockett had filed a lawsuit against the state over its policy of not disclosing the source of the drugs and the identity of the executioners. The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the "cruel and unusual punishment" of condemned prisoners. Lockett was afraid that he would become part of an experiment, says his stepmother. "It was as if he had sensed what was going to happen to him."
There are currently about 3,070 people on death row in the United States. But opponents of the death penalty hope that the latest series of botched executions could usher in the end of the lethal injection, which was developed in its current form in Oklahoma in 1977 and was long seen as the most humane method of execution.
"Do me one favor," his stepmother begged him in their last conversation. "As long as you can talk on that gurney: Talk. Let the world know how they are executing people here in Oklahoma."
When visiting hours were over, Lockett stood up, allowed the guard to put on his handcuffs and said, with tears in his eyes: "Mom, I love you."
"I'll see you in the next life," Hollins replied.
Horrifically Botched Execution
At 5:27 p.m., a paramedic and a doctor entered the execution chamber. Thus began one of the most gruesome executions in the history of the United States.
The paramedic's job was to insert a needle, which would be used to inject the lethal drugs into Lockett's body. He punctured the left arm with a hollow needle, but he forgot to use a bandage to keep the needle in place. By the time the bandage was brought into the room, the site was no longer usable. The paramedic tried to insert the needle at two other locations on Lockett's arm, but he failed both times. He switched to the right arm and tried three locations there. Then he removed the prisoner's tennis shoes and tried to insert the IV into his foot.
The doctor approached the gurney and tried to insert the needle into Lockett's jugular before trying a subclavian vein near his collarbone. While the two men were poking around his body, Lockett heard a drumming noise echoing through death row, as the inmates banged on their cell doors for five minutes -- a ritual intended as a final farewell to the condemned man.
Only a few cells away, Charles Warner was also waiting for his execution. He had said goodbye to his family and eaten his final meal. He was appointed to die at 8 p.m., on the same gurney where Lockett was now lying. But the schedule proved difficult to adhere to.
More than 10 attempts to place an IV had already failed by the time the doctor and the paramedic tried to insert it in Lockett's right groin. They cut open his scrubs and underwear, and then used a scalpel to cut into the flesh, because the veins in the groin are deep beneath the surface. The doctor, who had never before placed an IV in the groin area with the kind of needle now at his disposal, had only been asked to substitute for a colleague two days earlier. Until the day of the execution, neither he nor the paramedic had participated in a preparatory exercise.
While the two men taped the IV to Lockett's thigh, they discussed whether the needle might be too short for this location on the body, but they didn't have the right needle on hand. It was now 6:18 p.m., and it had taken them 51 minutes to place an IV.
Government authorities are having more and more difficulty finding specialists for executions. The professional associations of doctors, paramedics and nurses are urging their members not to participate in executions. According to one statement, "when the healthcare professional serves in an execution under circumstances that mimic care, the healing purposes of health services and technology become distorted." As a result, executions are carried out by doctors or nurses who are either unlicensed or acting illegally. They slip into the execution chambers like burglars, and they participate either out of conviction or for the $500 the prisons pay -- in cash, to prevent the names of those involved from being documented.
The prison warden asked the doctor whether he could place a second IV, to be on the safe side. But the doctor declined her request. Then the warden ordered the IV to be covered with a sheet, supposedly to preserve Lockett's "dignity."
The execution was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. When the warden ordered the beige blinds in the viewing gallery opened, at 6:23 p.m., 36 pairs of eyes were staring at Lockett. The government may have moved executions from market squares to a room behind thick prison walls, but the law requires that they not be carried out entirely in secret. Journalists and Lockett's attorneys were sitting on folding chairs in the viewing gallery.
LaDonna Hollins honored Lockett's request and did not attend. He had told her that he didn't want her to see what would happen to him.
The warden asked Lockett if he had any final words.
"No," he replied.
"Then let the execution begin."
- Part 1: The Death that Could Kill Lethal Injection
- Part 2: The Search for a Clean Way of Killing
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