Botched Oklahoma Execution Mobilizes Death Penalty Opponents

Apr 30, 2014
Originally published on April 30, 2014 6:18 pm

Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett's execution was botched on Tuesday, when a relatively new combination of drugs failed to work as expected. The incident, the second of its kind in recent months, is renewing questions of what constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. In Oklahoma today, Governor Mary Fallin called for a review of her state's lethal injection procedures.

GOVERNOR MARY FALLIN: The state needs to be certain of its protocols and its procedures for executions and that they work.

BLOCK: This comes after a botched execution last night of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett. Governor Fallin said the review will determine not only what went wrong last night but what should be changed in the future. She also delayed the other execution that was scheduled for last night until the inquiry is finished. The developments in Oklahoma have grabbed national attention and, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, they have galvanized the anti-death penalty movement.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Clayton Lockett's lawyer, David Autry, was one of the witnesses to last night's execution. And what he saw looked like agony.

DAVID AUTRY: He rose his head and shoulders up as if he were trying to sit up. He was mumbling. He was moaning, grimacing. This happened a number of times. And then it was apparent to me, as a layman - not being a doctor - that Mr. Lockett was struggling mightily against what was happening to him and was in pain and was, at least in some measure, aware of what he was going through.

KASTE: The prison staff lowered the blinds, preventing the witnesses from seeing Lockett. Later, Oklahoma's director of corrections, Robert Patton, told the media that Lockett's vein had burst, so he intervened.

ROBERT PATTON: After conferring with the warden, and unknown how much drugs had went into him, it was my decision at that time to stop the execution.

KASTE: Witnesses left without knowing whether Lockett was dead or alive. Later, the state announced that Lockett had died of a heart attack. While the state has promised an investigation, the case is reverberating outside Oklahoma.

DIANN RUST-TIERNEY: The public is getting a graphic look, up close and personal, at what it means to actually have a death penalty and use it in the United States.

KASTE: Diann Rust-Tierney runs the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She says the situation in Oklahoma was compounded by the state's refusal to disclose the sources of the lethal chemicals they inject. Lockett's lawyers had tried unsuccessfully to get this information, arguing that their client had a right to know the reliability of the chemicals that would kill him.

RUST-TIERNEY: This is what happens when the government acts in secrecy and without accountability. And I think what will happen is that this will really, as it already has, propel this issue into the forefront of the national debate about who we are as a people.

KASTE: But the opponents of the death penalty have had a hand in pushing the states into this kind of secrecy. In 2011, anti-death penalty sentiment caused the European Union to ban exports of the key drugs to the U.S. Since then, several states have shielded the identities of their new sources, while the scarcity of the drugs has contributed to a steady decline in the number of executions nationwide. In Oklahoma, though, Governor Mary Fallin continues to stand by capital punishment.

FALLIN: I believe the death penalty is an appropriate response and punishment to those who commit heinous crimes against their fellow men and women.

KASTE: Few Oklahomans can forget the crime that put Lockett on death row. He shot a 19-year-old woman, who was then buried alive. Lockett's lawyer, David Autry.

AUTRY: It was a horrible, horrible crime, yet we don't treat the murderers like they treat their murder victims in this country if we're going to call ourselves civilized. And we certainly don't have the kind of spectacle that occurred last night in any system that is abiding by the Eighth Amendment.

KASTE: That being the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.