The botched execution of a condemned killer in Oklahoma could have far-reaching consequences on American's death penalty process, execution opponents and lawyers for condemned prisoners say.
Clayton Lockett, 38, struggled violently, groaned and writhed after lethal drugs were administered by Oklahoma officials Tuesday night, according to eyewitness accounts. He lifted his head and shoulders as if struggling to sit up on a gurney, fighting against restraints, according to an eyewitness account in the Tulsa World.
As Dean Sutherford, one of two defense lawyers witnessing the execution, began to weep, Lockett appeared to try to speak, uttering only one word – "man" – that witnesses could understand.
After 16 minutes, officials closed off curtains in the death chamber, blocking the view of media witnesses who were present. At one point, prison officials said they were stopping Lockett's execution. But they declared him dead of a heart attack 43 minutes after the injection process began.
"It was extremely difficult to watch," says David Autry, an attorney for Lockett.
Lockett was convicted of shooting a 19-year-old woman and watching two accomplices bury her alive in 1999. Oklahoma had two executions set for Tuesday night, the first time since 1937 the state had planned two deaths on a single day.
After Lockett's death, Gov. Mary Fallin issued a 14-day stay of execution for the second condemned man, Charles Warner, 46, convicted of raping and killing an 11-month-old girl in 1997. He says he is innocent.
Warner's lawyer, Madeline Cohen, says she will seek an independent investigation into Lockett's execution as well as an independent autopsy.
Death penalty states have been struggling in recent years to carry out executions because of a shortage of commonly used drugs, largely because of decisions by manufacturers in Europe to block their use on condemned prisoners.
The result has been a scramble to obtain necessary narcotics. States often rely on compounding pharmacies that can make drugs to order. Many of these pharmacies, however, stop cooperating when their efforts are publicized.
This has led to legal battles between death penalty states and lawyers for condemned prisoners over how much of the death penalty process can remain secret.
States have begun to keep secret about where drugs are obtained. Correction officials such as those in Oklahoma have turned to lethal injection protocols never before used in executions.
The process Oklahoma used Tuesday night involved administering midazolam, an anti-seizure medication, as an anesthetic before paralyzing Lockett with vecuronium bromide and then injecting him with potassium chloride to stop his heart.
Midazolam and vecuronium bromide have been in short supply. But Oklahoma recently informed lawyers for Lockett and Warner that commercially manufactured quantities had been located, although the state refuses to provide more information.
Defense lawyers said the amount of midazolam set for use on Lockett and Warner was one-fifth what had been used on a previous Florida execution, the only other time this three-drug combination had been used.
Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton told reporters Tuesday night that executioners had trouble injecting drugs into Lockett's veins. "His line failed," Patton said, the Tulsa World reported. Asked what that meant, Patton added: "His vein exploded."
Defense attorneys say their fear is that the drug used as an anesthetic will not work properly, leaving the condemned to suffer in agony from the next two drugs administered.
"There's no dispute that potassium chloride (used to stop the heart) is excruciatingly painful," Cohen says. "So the problem is when the first drug doesn't work, the second drug (the paralytic vecuronium bromide) causes a horrible suffocating .. and the third drug scores the veins and causes a terribly painful, horrible heart attack."
The ACLU of Oklahoma issued a statement decrying the death of Lockett as a "hastily thrown together human science experiment" and it called for greater transparency for a process it said has fundamentally failed.
Attorneys for Lockett and Warner had successfully won a stay of execution for both men from a state district judge on March 26. The judge ruled that Oklahoma's secrecy statute for executions was unconstitutional.
The state's Supreme Court later ruled 5-4 to extend the stay.
But that high court reversed itself April 23, clearing the way for the scheduled double execution.
"We have to stop executions until there's been a full investigation, independent investigation and full transparency," says Cohen, who was sitting with three members of Warner's family at an Oklahoma state prison awaiting his execution Tuesday when they learned about Lockett's struggle to die.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center, an opponent of executions, said Lockett's manner of death would add momentum to efforts to halt lethal injection until the process is better understood and there is more transparency in states' procedures.
"Somebody died because of the state's incompetency," Dieter says, adding that Louisiana, Kentucky and Ohio considering similar protocols. "I think they're going to have second thoughts and those executions will be delayed."
Dieter says "the burden has shifted to the states to justify why they're picking drugs, where they're getting them and who's performing the executions. There was a terrible breakdown of process of human treatment, of professionalism (in Oklahoma).
Lockett's death is at least the fourth lethal injection death in recent years where witnesses reported condemned prisoners in agony. Previous cases included:
• The Jan. 16 execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio during which he appeared to struggle and gasp for 20 minutes before dying;
• The execution on Jan. 9 in Oklahoma of Michael Lee Wilson, whose last words were "I feel my whole body burning."
• The 2012 execution in South Dakota of Eric Robert who witnesses said appeared to clear his throat and gasp, his skin turning purplish and his eyes remaining open until he died.
"To get these drugs (executioners) are turning to really, really shady methods of obtaining them that leads to potential contamination, adulteration, expiration," says Cohen, Warner's lawyer. "I can't believe we're still having this fight (over lethal injection) in the wake of this horrible, horrible event."