What Happened In Oklahoma On Tuesday Night Was Disgusting And Shameful

When will the United States understand that it's time to put the death penalty to death?
Publish date:
April 30, 2014
prison reform, prisoners' rights, oklahoma, death penalty, execution

The fact that the United States persists in murdering people in the name of the state is utterly infuriating, bizarre, and confounding to me. I'm not quite sure why we would want to be in the company of nations who do things like holding public execution parties for people convicted of crimes like being gay. Like, not killing people is a pretty low bar to set in terms of not being a shitty person (or country), and just because they did it first doesn't make it OK for you to do it, too.

I'm sorry. I was going to write a passioned, well-reasoned, thoughtful post about the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on Tuesday night, but the fact is that I'm just infuriated about it. I'm infuriated and sad and ashamed of my country, because we can do better than this. America is supposed to be a better place than this.

Here's the story, for those of you who want a quick rundown: Inmates Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner were both scheduled to die in Oklahoma on Tuesday night, with the state using a cocktail of experimental drugs from sources it refused to disclosed. The two men had actually requested a stay of execution over the medications, arguing that they had concerns about their safety, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court granted it. Governor Mary Fallin overrode it with an executive order, though, allowing the execution to go ahead.

Lockett's execution was scheduled to begin at 6:00 PM, using a combination of three drugs, starting with midazolam to induce heavy sedation. This would be followed by vecuronium bromide, which stops respiration, and potassium chloride to induce cardiac arrest. As the "Times" pointed out, incomplete sedation would result in an agonizing death by suffocation.

The first drug was administered at 6:23. Ten minutes later, the doctor said Lockett was fully sedated, and indicated it was time to proceed to the next two drugs, which are given simultaneously. Here's where things started to go wrong: witnesses reported seeing him groaning, licking his lips, and trying to lift his lips, as he said "Oh man," and a prison official in the room said "Something's wrong." The viewing shutters were closed, leaving the witnesses in a state of uncertainty about what was going on -- though they were later told that one of Lockett's veins had blown, obstructing the flow of the drugs and interfering with the execution.

Lockett died at 7:06 of cardiac arrest, and as witness Graham Lee Brewer points out, the lack of transparency surrounding the execution was troubling, and boded ill. What exactly happened in that execution chamber after the shutters were closed so those present couldn't bear witness to the prisoner's suffering? Was it like Michael Lee Wilson, another Oklahoma inmate who said he could feel his whole body burning after the drugs were administered and he was supposed to be sedated in a "humane" execution that wouldn't allow him to feel pain?

After the grisly scene in the execution chamber, the Governor stepped in to issue a stay of execution for Charles Warner, and the internet promptly exploded. As witnesses exited the room and started communicating with the world -- AP reporter Bailey Elise McBride's Twitter feed was a great source -- anger grew. Oklahoma had just tortured a man to death using an experimental drug protocol, which was certainly a violation of the Eighth Amendment, and raised some questions for me, at least, about whether the state might be violating laws on medical experimentation and the use of unlicensed drugs.

Like other states (including, regrettably, my own) that cling to the outdated, horrific, and disgusting tradition of the death penalty, Oklahoma is starting to have trouble sourcing its drugs. The European Union won't sell execution drugs to US prisons or suppliers, and individual pharmaceutical companies are also starting to refuse supplies. That's led prisons to "compounding pharmacies," which aren't subject to the same tight regulations as real drug manufacturers. Furthermore, execution personnel aren't even consistent about dosage and application of the drug from execution to execution, making a successful procedure far from a sure thing.

What happened in Oklahoma on Tuesday night was disgusting. Watching it unfold was horrifying and shameful, and it reminded me of why I am so ferociously against the death penalty. It's cruel and unusual punishment, it's wrong, and it's a fundamental human rights violation. Worldwide, 51 percent of countries have already stopped using it, and we're in the company of human rights trailblazers like Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

Clayton Lockett was convicted of doing a terrible thing: He raped and shot a 19-year-old woman, and then watched while his accomplices buried her alive. She suffocated to death, in what must have been a horrific and agonizing experience. The fact that Lockett endured a painful, drawn-out death doesn't bring her back. It doesn't change the fact that she's dead, and she was killed in a horrible, gruesome way. It doesn't in any way compensate her family or her loved ones for their incredible, heartwrenching loss.

Murdering a murderer isn't about "justice." It's not about "deterrence." It's just murder, no matter who does it. When will the United States understand that it's time to put the death penalty to death?