Oklahoma

Oklahoma

Texas to Censor Its Autopsy Report in Botched Oklahoma Execution

After the botched execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29, Oklahoma officials sent his body to Texas for an independent autopsy. Now it appears that Texas will withhold important information revealed in the course of the autopsy from the public at Oklahoma's request. The autopsy was performed by the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office. Earlier, Michael Thompson, Commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, said the Lockett autopsy report would be made public. However, when a news organization requested the results of the autopsy, Oklahoma objected. Dallas County asked Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbot to rule on releasing the information. The attorney general sided with Oklahoma's request to keep certain items secret, including the identities of the drug preparer, doctors who were present at the execution, and other members of the execution team. Oklahoma wanted even more information to be kept secret, citing provisions of the Oklahoma Open Records Act, but Texas said other information generated during the autoposy, should be released.

News Organizations Sue Oklahoma to View Entire Execution Process

A lawsuit filed in federal court in Oklahoma on August 25 by various news organizations, including the Oklahoma Observer and the Guardian US, seeks to give media witnesses a more complete view of executions than is currently allowed. The petition alleges that the right to witness the entire execution is protected by the First Amendment, stating, "The ability of the press to witness the particular facts and circumstances of each execution, and to report on the same, promotes the proper functioning of the State’s death penalty system and increases public confidence in the integrity of the justice system." Current practice in Oklahoma only permits witnesses to begin watching once officials start administering the lethal injection drugs. The view of witnesses is blocked while the inmate is strapped to the gurney and intravenous lines are inserted. During Clayton Lockett's botched execution in April, the blinds were closed again when Lockett began to writhe and groan after the drugs should have taken effect. Katie Fretland, a reporter who attended Lockett's execution and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said,  “At an execution, the press serves as the public’s eyes and ears. The government shouldn’t be allowed to effectively blindfold us when things go wrong. The public has a right to the whole story, not a version edited by government officials.”

Media Investigation Finds Serious Flaws in Oklahoma Execution Procedure

The Tulsa World of Oklahoma recently conducted an investigation into the state's execution protocol in the wake of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April. Comparing Oklahoma's protocol to those of 19 other states, the study found that Oklahoma lacks basic safeguards followed in many other states. Among those are regular training for the execution team, the availability of backup drugs in the event of a problem with the initial injection, and specified procedures for determining whether the inmate is unconscious. The World questioned Oklahoma's decision to use a three-drug protocol when a less error-prone, one-drug protocol was available under the state's procedures. A review of autopsy records from Oklahoma's executed inmates found that all inmates were given the same dose of the drugs, regardless of their weight. At least 32 of the 108 inmates for whom records were available had levels of anesthetic in their blood below what experts say would render a patient unconscious. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was "uncontested" that, without sufficient anesthesia, "there is a substantial, constitutionally unacceptable risk of suffocation" from the second and third drugs used in lethal injections. A state law passed in 2000 ended the practice of automatic autopsies of executed prisoners. Autopsies are now performed only if requested by the inmate's family or ordered by state officials. An autopsy of Clayton Lockett was ordered, but the full results have not yet been released.

Georgia Supreme Court Upholds Lethal Injection Secrecy

In a 5-2 ruling issued on May 19, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the state's law that hides the source and the identity of the preparer of drugs and equipment used in executions. The court said, “We conclude that Georgia’s execution process is likely made more timely and orderly by the execution-participant confidentiality statute...." The ruling lifted the stay of execution that was in place for Warren Hill, whose lawyers challenged the law. In a dissent, Justice Robert Benham referenced the recent botched execution in Oklahoma, writing, “I fear this state is on a path that, at the very least, denies Hill and other death row inmates their rights to due process and, at the very worst, leads to the macabre results that occurred in Oklahoma." Hill's lawyer, Brian Kammer, said the decision, “effectively affords the State of Georgia carte blanche to alter their lethal injection protocol in any way it sees fit, and to conceal from the public and even the courts the identity and provenance of the chemicals it intends to use to carry out executions.” A similar secrecy law in Missouri is being challenged by five news organizations, who say the law violates the First Amendment.

NEW VOICES: Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma Would Bypass Death Penalty

Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma recently said he believes the April 29 execution of Clayton Lockett, “was certainly not done appropriately.” Coburn, who is also a physician, added, “It’s an unfortunate thing but, again, anytime you’re doing anything with the body, things can go wrong." He also spoke more broadly about his views on the death penalty, saying, "I don’t like it. I wish we put everybody that had such a history as this gentleman behind bars working and doing things that would help them." With regard to the investigation the state is conducting on the botched execution, Coburn said, “Oklahoma will correct it. They’ll be transparent about what happened. They’ll fix what happened." The senator did say he thought the death penalty had "deterrent capability."

EDITORIALS: "State-Sponsored Horror in Oklahoma"

A recent New York Times editorial described the "horrific scene" of Clayton Lockett's botched execution and called on Oklahoma to "[follow] other governors and legislatures in banning executions, recognizing that the American administration of death does not function." The editors noted the Oklahoma Supreme Court's temporary halt to the execution and pointed to political pressure as a possible explanation for why the Court then allowed it to go forward: "[S]everal lawmakers threatened to impeach the justices, and Gov. Mary Fallin blindly ignored the warning signs and ordered the execution to proceed." The editorial stated, "Mr. Lockett’s ordeal, along with the botched deaths of other inmates around the country, showed there is no reliable and humane method of execution." The Times critiqued not only the secrecy surrounding the source of the lethal injection drugs used, but also the larger systemic problems of the death penalty, such as arbitrariness and wrongful convictions. They cited a new study that found over 4% of death-sentenced defendants are likely innocent. Noting the growing number of jurists and lawmakers who are calling for a moratorium on the death penalty because of its exceptional cost, the editorial concluded, "The 'exceptional cost' refers not just to dollars and cents. It refers to the moral diminishment of the United States when a man dies by the hasty hand of government, writhing in pain." Read the editorial below.

President Obama Orders Review of Death Penalty

President Obama has ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to review the application of the death penalty in the U.S. following the failed execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29. The President noted concerns about innocence and racial bias: “In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems — racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, you know, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence. And all these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied.” The Department of Justice was already reviewing federal execution protocols. Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said, “At the president’s direction, the department will expand this review to include a survey of state-level protocols and related policy issues.” The President called the events in Oklahoma, in which the inmate regained consciousness and apprarently suffered before dying of a heart attack, "deeply disturbing."

NEW VOICES: Former Oklahoma Warden Says Death Penalty Fails on Many Fronts

Randy Workman (pictured) is a former warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, where he oversaw 32 executions. In a recent interview, he was critical of many aspects of capital punishment. He said the death penalty failed the victims' families and wasted money: "We spend millions of dollars on these cases and going through the process and the end result is the family, do they feel vindicated? I’d say 90% of the time the people I’ve seen don’t." He shared the advice he gave to a murder victim's mother (a relative) who asked for his thoughts on whether to seek the death penalty: "I said here’s the deal, if you get the death penalty and you[’re] successful, you're going to spend the next eight to 12 years back and forth in court and you’re going to relive your son’s death, because he has all these appeals....I’ve seen some mothers that had some serious broken hearts that said this doesn’t end it for me.This isn’t justice to me. This doesn’t do it.” He also said the threat of execution does not deter people from committing murder: “I can tell you the people that I’ve executed, when they committed crimes, they didn’t, wasn’t thinking about the death penalty and a lot of them were high, or a lot of them in the generation of people we’re dealing with today don’t have a lot of forethought about the end result.” Workman said he still supported the death penalty, but would not want to "push the button" on the chance the defendant might be innocent: "I would never take that chance with my life,” he said.

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