A double execution in Oklahoma turned into a single, ghastly one, after a failed attempt at lethal injection instead appears to have caused a prisoner’s heart attack and subsequent death. The second scheduled execution for the evening was postponed as a result, and reset for two weeks later. Yet 14 days is unlikely to change the basic issues involved with using undetermined, unclassified drugs in order to end the life of a person who has committed a crime, nor address the underlying problems with the death penalty itself.
Clayton Lockett was in prison for shooting a 19-year-old woman and allowing her to be buried alive, according to news reports, but his execution for the crime had been briefly in doubt as he and a fellow inmate also scheduled for lethal injection demanded to be informed about the drug that would be used in their deaths. The inmates had a justifiable reason to be concerned. Recent lethal injection executions had been conducted using untested, unnamed drugs, leaving those who underwent them taking extended periods to die in what onlookers described as obvious suffering.
Oklahoma, too, was trying an untested combination of new drugs, and was unwilling to state what was in the “cocktail.” According to the Associated Press, Lockett was given the first drug and declared unconscious 10 minutes later, but “[a]bout three minutes later, though, Lockett began breathing heavily, writhing on the gurney, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow.” The blinds were closed to witnesses, and the execution allegedly halted, but Lockett was pronounced dead of a heart attack soon after.
“It was a horrible thing to witness. This was totally botched,” Lockett’s attorney, David Autry, told the Associated Press.
Prison administrators blamed the failure on a bad vein, not the drugs themselves. But recent lethal injection attempts have been just as poorly done, and those who have undergone them have obviously suffered as well. An Ohio execution resulted in the inmate “snorting and snoring” through a 25 minute long execution, and caused the state to reexamine the level of drugs it administers during an execution.
What states should really be reexamining, however, is the use of the death penalty at all. A new study estimates that at least 4 percent of all executions are conducted on prisoners who are in fact innocent, resulting in about 200 wrongful state-sanctioned murders over the period of the last four decades. “This is a disturbing finding,” Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan law school who is the lead author of the research, told The Guardian. “There are a large number of people who are sentenced to death, and despite our best efforts some of them have undoubtedly been executed.”
Charles Warner, the other inmate scheduled to be executed that night, may have a literal stay of execution for now, but that still doesn’t address one major underlying concern in his case — the fact that years later he still maintains he is completely innocent of the crime he was charged with, raping and murdering an 11 month old infant. Warner went through three trials, and there were accusations of manipulated testimony and evidence.
Even if he had committed the crimes he was jailed for, the infant’s own mother opposes him being put to death for it. “God always has the final say so on life and death and after everything that I’ve been through, I wouldn’t want his family to suffer the way I’ve suffered or his child to have to endure losing her father. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” she told the Tulsa World, stating that she felt life in prison with no chance of parole was a better punishment.
With blatant racial disparities being a key component of who is executed in our prison system, a startling number of innocent people put to death and even those who have victims of their crimes advocating for life in prison instead, isn’t it time we take the instance of yet another failed execution attempt to discuss not how to execute people better, but how to get rid of the death penalty all together?