Oklahoma

Oklahoma

NEW VOICES: Anesthesiologist Points to Risks in Upcoming Executions

As Oklahoma prepared to carry out its first execution on January 15 since the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014, anesthesiologist Dr. Mark Heath of Columbia University Medical School expressed serious concerns about the drugs it will use, particularly one that paralyzes the inmate: "Oklahoma and other states ... should abandon the barbaric use of paralyzing drugs entirely." He explained that when the prisoner is given paralytic drugs, he "will die of suffocation whether they are unconscious or they are wide awake." Dr. Heath also criticized the use of midazolam, which Oklahoma plans to use again, despite the problems in multiple states with that drug in 2014. He said it is particularly ill-suited as the first lethal injection drug because it is a weaker anesthetic than barbiturates, such as pentobarbital. In an op-ed, he concluded, "Oklahoma and other states should not be executing prisoners with midazolam; they should not proceed in the absence of qualified medical practitioners; they should only use FDA-approved drugs, and they should abandon the barbaric, outmoded and unnecessary use of chemical paralysis – ....The public and the courts could then return their attention to the more important questions and debate surrounding the death penalty enterprise."

Oklahoma Warden Called Recent Execution a "Bloody Mess"

Attorneys for several inmates in Oklahoma have asked a federal court to stay their executions and presented new accounts of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett (pictured) as evidence the state's execution procedure is unconstitutionally cruel. The recent filing included statements describing the execution from the warden, an attending paramedic, and a victims' services advocate who witnessed the execution. Warden Anita Trammell called the execution, "a bloody mess," and said, "I was kind of panicking. Thinking oh my God. He’s coming out of this. It’s not working.” Edith Shoals, a victims' services advocate for the Department of Corrections, witnessed the execution from an overflow room and said, “It was like a horror movie … [Lockett] kept trying to talk.” The paramedic who participated in the execution described the doctor's failed attempts to insert an IV, saying, "I don’t think he realized that he hit the artery and I remember saying you’ve got the artery. We’ve got blood everywhere." Lockett was pricked at least 16 times in attempts to insert the IV. The doctor declined to set a backup IV line, as called for in the execution protocol, explaining, "We had stuck this individual so many times, I didn’t want to try and do another line." Mike Oakley, a former general counsel for the Department of Corrections, said "political pressure" played a role in the selection of execution drugs. “[T]he attorney general’s office, being an elective office, was under a lot of pressure. The, the staff over there was under a lot of pressure to, to say, ‘Get it done,’ you know, and so, yeah, I, I think it was a joint decision but there was, I got to say there was a definite push to make the decision, get it done, hurry up about it.”

Lawsuit Following Botched Oklahoma Execution Names Participating Doctor

On October 14 a lawsuit was filed by the family of Clayton Lockett (l.) against the state of Oklahoma for damages related to his botched execution in April. The suit alleges “unsound procedures and inadequately trained personnel” and claims that Dr. Johnny Zellmer was the physician present at Lockett's execution. The family asserts that Zellmer, “was willing to, and did in fact, conduct the medical experiment engaged in by Defendants to kill Clayton Lockett regardless of the fact that these chemicals had never been approved or tested by any certifying body.” Oklahoma law makes the names of its execution team, including participating doctors, secret. In Lockett's execution, most of the execution team was out of view of witnesses, but the doctor who pronounced death was visible. Oklahoma has delayed all executions for the remainder of 2014 in order to allow time to obtain lethal injection drugs and prepare personnel. The state revised its execution protocol and remodeled its execution chamber after Lockett's execution, but retained the controversial drug midazolam and secrecy surrounding the sources of drugs and personnel.

Botched Execution Results in $100,000 Renovation and Fewer Media Witnesses

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections recently gave the media a tour (see video here) of its newly renovated execution chamber. The state spent over $100,000 updating the rooms in response to the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April. Among the changes are a new gurney (an "electric bed"), a new intercom, and an atomic clock. Previously, communications included colored sticks pushed through a wall, with a red stick indicating something had gone wrong. Correctional officials were secretive about the participation of medical personnel, citing ongoing litigation. The state has said it will reduce the number of media witnesses from twelve to five. The ACLU and two media outlets have asked a judge to stop the state from reducing the number of media witnesses. "They took a process already corrupted by secrecy that had already led to at least one botched execution, and managed somehow to make it even more difficult for the people of Oklahoma and their representatives in the media to know anything about that process," said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. (Image: The Guardian, link to video in text above).

Federal Judge Calls Oklahoma Execution Plan Unrealistic

Twenty-one Oklahoma death row inmates, including three with upcoming execution dates, have filed suit against the state of Oklahoma challenging the state's lethal injection protocol. At a hearing in the case on September 18, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot urged the state to stay the executions, which are scheduled for November and December, saying, "It does not seem realistic to me that the steps that need to be taken can hardly be completed between now and then." The inmates have asked that the state be prevented from executing them “using the drugs and procedures employed in the attempt to execute Clayton Lockett, or similarly untried, untested and unsound drugs and procedures.” The state is currently revising its protocol, but the director of the Department of Corrections has said he will need time to train his staff on the new protocol. Patti Ghezzi, an attorney representing the death row inmates, told the judge that the inmates seek a finding that Lockett's execution violated the Eighth Amendment. “We do not want our plaintiffs to suffer the cruel and unusual punishment that Clayton Lockett suffered," Ghezzi said.

Oklahoma's Own Investigation Points to Only Minor Problems in Botched Execution

On September 4, Oklahoma released a report from its investigation into the botched execution of Clayton Lockett. The review, which was conducted by investigators from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, found several problems that may have contributed to the prolonged execution attempt on April 29. The execution was stopped by the warden, curtains were drawn in the chamber, but the inmate died afterwards, reportedly from the residues of the lethal drugs in his system. The state report found insufficient training of corrections officials, communication difficulties between those inside and outside the execution chamber, and a lack of contingency planning in case problems arose. The direct cause of the botched execution, according to the report, was the improper insertion of the IV, combined with the fact that the IV site was hidden from view and was not monitored throughout the execution process. The report offered eleven recommendations for future lethal injections, including observation of the IV insertion point, ongoing training for the execution team, established contingency plans and backup execution supplies in case of problems, and improved communications. Dale Baich, an attorney for Lockett, said, "The state’s internal investigation raises more questions than it answers. The report does not address accountability. It protects the chain of command. Once the execution was clearly going wrong, it should have been stopped, but it wasn’t. Whoever allowed the execution to continue needs to be held accountable."

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.”

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