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Oklahoma Botched Execution: Eighth Amendment Violation Comes Unexpectedly


Our blog  and Huffington Post articles have covered extensively the lawsuits filed by Oklahoma death row inmates Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, and we have explored the ramifications their appeals have had on the Oklahoma constitution. Now, after Lockett's execution went horribly wrong, it appears that the inmates had every right to be concerned that lethal injection was a violation of their Eighth Amendment rights--just not for the reason they believed.

Attorneys for Lockett and Warner challenged the Oklahoma Department of Corrections' policy of keeping secret the names of the compounding pharmacies used to supply lethal injection drugs. They argued that without knowing the source of the drugs, there is no way to know if the drugs used in executions are properly mixed or stored. Any failure to appropriately handle the drugs, they say, could lead to their ineffectiveness and may cause suffering in the executions in violation of one's Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Initially, a district court ruled that Oklahoma's death penalty policy was unconstitutional. 

The DOC appealed, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which is the state's court of last resort in civil matters, issued stays of execution for both Lockett and Warner pending their decision. In doing so, they overstepped their authority, acting out of their jurisdiction in making decisions regarding criminal cases.Their involvement put the state's two highest courts at odds and led to what Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt calls "a constitutional crisis." It also prompted a state representative to file for impeachment of the five justices who chose to delay the executions.

Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the initial impeachment papers, the state Supreme Court upheld the death penalty policies and ruled that secrecy about the source of the drugs did not violate the appellants' constitutional rights. The stays of execution were lifted, and Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner were scheduled to die on April 29--the first time Oklahoma was to execute two men on the same day since 1937.

Lockett's execution was to be first, and it was so disastrous that the execution was called off mid-administration, and Warner's execution was indefinitely delayed.

After failing to find suitable veins elsewhere, the attending physician determined that the lethal injection drugs would be administered through a vein in the groin. The drugs were administered and Lockett was declared unconscious. However, minutes after he was determined to be unconscious, he grimaced, twitched, tried to lift his head off the table, and even spoke. 

A report of the incident describes the situation as follows:

The doctor checked the IV and reported the blood vein had collapsed, and the drugs had either absorbed into tissue, leaked out or both. The warden immediately contacted the director by phone and reported the information to the director. The director asked the following question, "Have enough drugs been administered to cause death?" The doctor responded, "No." The director asked, "is another vein available, and if so, are there enough drugs remaining?" The doctor responded "No" to both questions. The director requested clarification as to whether enough drugs had been administered to cause death. The doctor responded, "No." The director asked the condition of the offender, the warden responded that the doctor was checking the offender's heart beat and found a faint heart beat and the offender was unconscious.

The execution was called off, but Lockett died later of an apparent heart attack--more than 40 minutes after the execution began.

Some people say that Lockett deserved a brutal death--after all, he shot a 19-year-old girl and buried her alive. Texas Governor Rick Perry, while admitting that the execution was "botched," said, "I don't know whether it was inhumane or not." However, the fact remains that the United States Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and a prolonged death marked by seizures and grimacing seems to be a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment. Furthermore, the United Nations says, in light of Lockett's death and the Ohio execution of Dennis McGuire earlier this year, that the death penalty in the United States violates international law.

Although Lockett and Warner questioned the source of the lethal injection drugs, there are many more things to consider, as Lockett's death demonstrates. The initial cause of the complication appears to be a blown vein that kept the drugs from being properly administered; the preliminary cause of death is cardiac arrest. An autopsy of Lockett's body will take up to eight weeks to complete. During that time, there is a moratorium on executions in Oklahoma. In that time, one cannot help but wonder what the national implications of an Oklahoma execution may be.

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