OKLAHOMA CITY: Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin named a member of her Cabinet on Wednesday to lead a review of how the state conducts executions after a botched procedure that the White House said fell short of the humane standards required.
Fallin said Clayton Lockett, who had an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after the start of an execution in which the state was using a new drug combination for the first time, had his day in court.
“I believe the death penalty is an appropriate response and punishment to those who commit heinous crimes against their fellow men and women,” Fallin said. “However, I also believe the state needs to be certain of its protocols and its procedures for executions and that they work.”
Lockett convulsed violently and tried to lift his head after a doctor declared him unconscious, and prison officials halted the execution. Fallin said “an independent review of the Department of Corrections procedures would be effective and also appropriate.”
The governor said the review, to be led by Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson, will focus on Lockett’s cause of death, noting that the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner has authorized an independent pathologist to make that determination. The review will also look at whether the department followed the current protocol correctly and will also include recommendations for future executions.
Fallin also said a stay for Charles Warner, who had been scheduled to die two hours after Lockett, is in place until May 13. She said Warner’s execution will be further delayed if the independent review is not complete by then.
Warner’s attorney immediately raised objections to the investigation being led by a member of Fallin’s cabinet.
“I don’t consider that to be an independent investigation,” said attorney Madeline Cohen.
Attorney General Scott Pruitt, whose office prosecutes death penalty cases and has worked to keep secret details about the execution drugs, said Wednesday he intends to assign investigators to work with Thompson.
Lockett, 38, had been declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of three drugs in the state’s new lethal injection combination was administered Tuesday evening. Three minutes later, he began breathing heavily, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head. Officials later blamed a ruptured vein for the problems with the execution, which is likely to fuel more debate about the ability of states to administer lethal injections that meet the U.S. Constitution’s requirement they be neither cruel nor unusual punishment.
The blinds eventually were lowered to prevent those in the viewing gallery from watching what was happening in the death chamber, and the state’s top prison official later called a halt to the proceedings. Lockett died of a heart attack shortly thereafter, the Department of Corrections said.
Most executions in Oklahoma, which used different fast-acting barbiturates, were completed and the inmate declared dead within about 10 minutes of the start of the procedure.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama believes that evidence suggests the death penalty does little to deter crime, but that some crimes are so heinous that the death penalty is merited.
Lockett, a four-time felon, was convicted of shooting 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman and watching as two accomplices buried her alive in rural Kay County in 1999. Neiman and a friend had interrupted the men as they robbed a home.
“But it’s also the case that we have a fundamental standard in this country that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely,” Carney said. “Everyone would recognize this case fell short of this standard.”
Questions about execution procedures have drawn renewed attention from defense attorneys and death penalty opponents in recent months, as several states scrambled to find new sources of execution drugs because drugmakers that oppose capital punishment — many based in Europe — have stopped selling to U.S. prisons and corrections departments.
Defense attorneys have unsuccessfully challenged several states’ policies of shielding the identities of the source of their execution drugs. Missouri and Texas, like Oklahoma, have both refused to reveal their sources and both of those states have carried out executions with their new supplies.
The medical examiner’s office, which said earlier Wednesday that the autopsy had begun, later said only the toxicology portion of the autopsy had been started and that the surgical portion will be conducted by an independent pathologist.
Medical examiner’s spokeswoman Amy Elliott said the autopsy on Lockett would include an examination of the injection sites on his arms and a toxicology report to determine what drugs were in his system. Elliott said it could take two to four months to complete the toxicology report.
Tuesday was the first time Oklahoma used the sedative midazolam as the first element in its execution drug combination. Other states have used it before; Florida administers 500 milligrams of midazolam as part of its three-drug combination. Oklahoma used 100 milligrams of that drug.
Pruitt, the attorney general, had said about a month ago that the lower dosage would ensure the state maintains an adequate supply for future executions. Pruitt said the information the state had indicated that at that dose, “you go to sleep doggone quick.”
In Ohio, the January execution of an inmate who made snorting and gasping sounds led to a civil rights lawsuit by his family and calls for a moratorium. That execution also used the drug midazolam, but in a lower dosage than Oklahoma used and as part of a two-drug combination. The state has stood by the execution but said Monday that it’s boosting the dosages of its lethal injection drugs.
Lockett and Warner had sued the state for refusing to disclose details about the execution drugs, including where Oklahoma obtained them. The case, filed as a civil matter, placed Oklahoma’s two highest courts at odds. The state Supreme Court later dismissed the inmates’ claim that they were entitled to know the source of the drugs.