Botched Execution in Oklahoma Opens Up New Front in Fight Against Capital Punishment

The disturbing case of a botched execution in Oklahoma that left an inmate writhing in agony for 10 minutes before he died of a heart attack, has heightened the urgency of the debate about the ultimate punishment in the United States.

It’s unclear exactly what happened during the execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29. Lockett was a convicted murderer and rapist. Witnesses said he was convulsing and writhing on the gurney and struggling to speak, before officials blocked the witnesses’ view.

He was declared dead of a heart attack 10 minutes after the execution was called off.

The botched execution came in a climate when states are executing fewer inmates due to a number of factors including a shortage of execution drugs. It was the state’s first time using a new, three-drug cocktail for an execution.

A recent report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) revealed 10 percent fewer prisoners were executed in the United States in 2013 than the previous year.

The report cited a chronic shortage of drugs used in lethal injections, high court costs and a shift in public opinion on executions as reasons why the death penalty is being used less and less.

CNN reported on how the botched execution in Oklahoma has opened up a “new front in the battle over executions.”

President Barack Obama described the execution as “deeply troubling” and said he’s going to ask the attorney general to analyze the many problems surrounding the application of the death penalty in the United States.

Lockett’s family is considering filing a civil lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma, according to The Guardian newspaper.

LaDonna Hollins condemned the procedure. “We are not to torture people to death,” Hollins told The Guardian. “Not thrashing and convulsing. That makes them no better than the murder he committed. That makes us in Oklahoma look like savages. Come on, America. Look at this.”

The New Yorker reported on a shortage of execution drugs as European manufacturers have cut off the supply. The article alluded to other botched executions. In January, the Oklahoma inmate Michael Lee Wilson said as he was executed: “I feel my whole body burning.” An inmate in Ohio spent 10 minutes “struggling and gasping loudly for air,” according to an NPR report and made “snorting and choking sounds.” It took nearly half an hour for him to die.

The New Yorker reported Oklahoma used a cocktail of the midazolam (a sedative) in combination with vecuronium bromide (which paralyzes the respiratory system) and potassium chloride (which is a heart stopping drug), for the first time in the Clayton Lockett execution. The drugs are delivered intravenously. The “suffocating pain” caused by the second and third drugs would be agonizing for the prisoner who is executed if the sedative effects of the first drug failed.

Texas uses different drugs but the Lockett debacle may have an impact in the state that executes more inmates than any other in the United States.

Robert James Campbell, a 41-year-old prisoner on the Texas death row is the next inmate scheduled to be executed in the United States. NBC reported his lawyers are using the Oklahoma case in an attempt to win a reprieve.

Campbell is due to be put to death May 13, for the 1991 rape and murder of a bank teller who was abducted from a gas station and later shot to death. The controversy over executions will not go away any time soon.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.