OKLAHOMA is a pro-death penalty state. This was clearly evident in letters to the editor and online comments following the execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett in late April.
Lockett writhed on the gurney after the drugs were administered. He didn’t die until more than 40 minutes after the execution started. State prison officials said his vein collapsed where the IV had been inserted in his leg. Preliminary results of an autopsy sought by Lockett’s attorneys said the IV hadn’t been placed properly.
Yet the general sentiment among Oklahomans was that botched or not, Lockett got what he deserved; any suffering he may have experienced paled in comparison with his victim — a 19-year-old woman who was beaten, shot twice and then, at Lockett’s behest, buried alive.
But those who favor the death penalty should also want the execution procedure to be beyond reproach. It’s not at all clear that this is the case in Oklahoma, as shown in recent reporting by the Tulsa World.
The World reviewed execution protocols in the 20 states, including Oklahoma, that have carried out an execution since 2008. The newspaper found that Oklahoma’s policies leave much to be desired in comparison. Among the findings:
No specific procedures are required to make sure an inmate is unconscious before the heart-stopping drug is administered. Five other states have specific directions on how to determine consciousness.
Members of the execution team aren’t required to undergo regular training. In about half the states that make their execution protocols public, team members must train for the procedure regularly.
Oklahoma doesn’t require backup drugs be on hand in case the first dose of lethal drugs doesn’t work. Nine states require a second complete set of drugs for use in such cases.
Oklahoma’s execution protocol includes no language about what the execution team should do if something goes wrong.
Lockett’s execution is the subject of an investigation by Michael Thompson, Oklahoma’s commissioner of public safety. Thompson, a witness to the Lockett execution, is charged with reviewing what went wrong in that case and recommending improvements to the process.
He may wind up being troubled by some of the vague language in Oklahoma’s execution protocol. For example it requires an EMT-paramedic “or other licensed person” to start IVs, which usually are inserted in the arm of the condemned. The IV was placed in Lockett’s femoral vein, but it isn’t clear which type of medical professional handled that duty.
The Department of Corrections’ official timeline released after the execution said a phlebotomist wasn’t able to find a usable vein in Lockett’s arm, legs or feet. An IV finally was placed in his groin area. But phlebotomists aren’t licensed to start IVs in Oklahoma; a DOC spokesman later told the World the timeline was incorrect and that an EMT was present. Such discrepancies should concern those who feel, as we do, that the death penalty is warranted in especially heinous cases.
It’s worth noting that most of the state’s 110 other executions have gone as planned since Oklahoma began lethal injection in 1990. But clear, precise protocols would serve to ensure that the state is taking every precaution to do its job properly when it exacts the ultimate punishment.