(Washington, DC) – Oklahoma should end its failed experiment with the death penalty. On the evening of April 29, 2014, during an attempt to execute Clayton Lockett by lethal injection, he appeared to regain consciousness. Witnesses reported that Lockett began to mumble, calling out “man” and “something’s wrong,” tried to lift his head, and began to go into a seizure. Lockett died of a heart attack 40 minutes after the execution had begun.
“People convicted of crimes should not be test subjects for a state’s grisly experiments,” said Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Last night’s botched execution was nothing less than state-sanctioned torture.”
Lockett, 38, had been convicted of killing Stephanie Neiman in 1999.
Oklahoma was using a three-drug protocol: the first drug administered was midazolam, to cause unconsciousness. The second drug, vecuronium bromide, was supposed to stop respiration, and the third, potassium chloride, was to stop the heart. The first drug was supposed to act as a sedative and negate the pain caused by the latter two. But it apparently was not administered correctly.
According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the three-drug cocktail had never before been tried in Oklahoma, and the average time for an inmate to be pronounced dead through lethal injections in the past had been 6 to 12 minutes.
As drugs used in lethal injections have become harder to procure, their sources have become shrouded in secrecy. Oklahoma law prohibits the disclosure of the source of these drugs. An Oklahoma court found that this law violated the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment, but the state supreme court ultimately disagreed and allowed the Lockett execution to be carried out.
Lockett’s execution was to be followed by another the same night, but after Lockett’s death Governor Mary Fallin issued a 14-day stay on that second execution so that the state could review its execution procedures.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty in the United States. Lockett is the 20th person executed in the United States in 2014. These executions have occurred in five states: Texas, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Ohio. Thirty-nine inmates were executed in the United States last year.
Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all cases because the inherent dignity of the person cannot be squared with the death penalty, a form of punishment unique in its cruelty and finality. It is a punishment inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error. The death penalty is widely rejected by rights-respecting democracies around the world, including all 47 member countries of the Council of Europe.
Lockett is the latest inmate on whom states have tested new lethal injection protocols. In January, Ohio executed a man using an untested cocktail. The inmate struggled and made snorting and choking sounds for 10 minutes during that execution. In another execution that month in Oklahoma using a different drug protocol, the inmate said, “I feel my whole body burning” before he died.
“These men are testifying as they die,” Ginatta said. “States should stop experimenting and trying to find a painless or humane way to kill inmates – there isn’t any.”