Oklahoma’s Botched Execution Revealed the Flaws in States’ Reliance on Lethal Injection

Lethal injection has a surprisingly high failure rate

Photo: Jerry Cabluck/Sygma/Corbis

Last night, the execution of Clayton D. Lockett in Oklahoma did not go as planned. Lockett, who was convicted of shooting and then helping to bury alive a 19-year-old woman in 1999, was to be executed with an experimental three-drug combination, including midazolam—a sedative—and pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant that, in high enough doses, will stop the heart and breathing, Mother Jones reports.  

Around 6:31 last night, several minutes after the midazolam was injected into Lockett, however, things began to go wrong. According to an eyewitness report from Tulsa World, the physicians first seemed to have trouble inducing unconsciousness in the prisoner. Then, at 6:36, Lockett began to kick and struggle against the table reins. He mumbled several words, including "man." Three minutes later, the physician and officials lowered the blinds to the execution room. At 6:50, they announced that one of Lockett's veins had "failed"—exploded, essentially—meaning that the drugs were not properly entering his system. The corrections director announced that the execution would be postponed, but at 7:06 Lockett is pronounced dead, having suffered a massive heart attack. Because of the turn of events, officials decided to postpone a second execution that was also supposed to take place last night. 

Oklahoma and other states that use the lethal injection have been running short of the chemicals usually used to carry out death sentences: the Danish company that makes pentobarbital banned its sale for executions a few years back. This has forced American states to rely on sometimes-untested drug cocktails and, on occasion, to source those drugs from unregulated compounding pharmacies. In February, Lockett and Charles Warner, the other prisoner due to be executed last night, sued Oklahoma on the grounds that the drug cocktail they were to be given violated their Eighth Amendment rights, but their case was dismissed. The Supreme Court's decision to go ahead with the execution—an approval process that usually takes months—was issued within the span of 48 hours, and the swiftness of the decision led some to suspect that political pressure might have prompted it, the Nation reports

As the execution date approached, some predicted that there was a chance things could go wrong. As Mother Jones reported yesterday morning: 

The only known use of this drug combination for executions was in Florida in 2013, but Florida used five times the dose of midazolam that Oklahoma plans to use, meaning Lockett and Warner will essentially be human guinea pigs. "It is an experiment, and I don’t think anybody is absolutely certain what will happen in Oklahoma," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Dieter adds that we'll never know whether the drugs worked properly or caused needlessly painful deaths because the people who could tell us will be dead.

It's not clear, though, that it was the combination of drugs that was the problem. As Ben Crair writes at the New Republic, it's possible Lockett's executioner missed his veins, and "it seems likely...based on the little we do know and similar cases in the past, that Lockett suffered not because the drugs did not work as they were supposed to, but rather because the people in charge of his execution made basic medical errors."

This is not at all the first time an execution has been botched. As Vox reports, from 1890 to 2010, an estimated three percent of all executions went awry. In the years of hangings and the electric chair, inmates would sometimes be decapitated or their heads would burst in the flames. The lethal injection, too, has suffered its fair share of problems. In January, a prisoner in Oklahoma said that he could "feel my whole body burning," and another in Ohio took nearly half an hour to die as he gasped and convulsed, Mother Jones reports. Indeed, as Vox points out, it might seem surprising, but the advent of lethal injection has actually increased the failure rate of executions, bringing it up to seven percent.  

At the same time, the death penalty is becoming less common in America. The Economist wrote earlier this week, before Lockett's botched execution:

Even if all the executions scheduled for this year are carried out—which is unlikely—a total of 33 would be the lowest since 1994, and would have fallen by two-thirds from the peak of 98 in 1999....In 2013 American juries handed out just 80 death sentences: a slight increase from the previous year, but still close to the lowest level in 40 years. As of October 1st 2013, 3,088 Americans were on death row—down from a peak in 2000 of 3,593.

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