Originally published as a news feature in Qmunicate Magazine.
On Tuesday 29th April 2014, an execution by the US state of Oklahoma was gruesomely botched, sparking online outcry as disturbing details of the incident were leaked to social media by members of the press. Clayton Lockett, 38, was convicted in 2000 of the kidnap and shooting of 19 year old Stephanie Neiman during a home invasion before watching on as his accomplices buried her alive, and was sentenced to die by lethal injection. His execution date had been set for March but was delayed as his lawyers entered a court battle for the right to information on the cocktail of drugs the state planned to use to ensure the inmate’s death would not be unconstitutional, citing the Eighth Amendment’s ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ clause. The law suit proved unsuccessful as Oklahoma’s Supreme Court decided sufficient information had been provided, and lifted Lockett’s stay.
Medical officials searched for a suitable vein for 51 minutes as Lockett lay on the gurney before settling for injecting the drugs into the groin area; the screen was then lifted for witnesses to observe the proceedings. Lockett was pronounced unconscious, but soon began to writhe around on the table, gasping for air and attempting to speak. It took a further 21 minutes for officials to discover that the inmate’s vein had collapsed, preventing the drugs from entering his body properly. The execution was called off and plans made for the inmate to be transferred to hospital for resuscitation, but he suffered a heart attack and passed away before said plans could be put into motion – nearly an hour after the execution had begun. Lockett’s treatment was ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’ under international law, said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ spokesperson.
The three-drug cocktail purchased and used by Oklahoma was untested (and, in some states, banned from use on animals). The purchase of drugs to be used for execution is a process proving increasingly challenging for the 32 states which still hand down the death penalty (which is still a punishment under federal law) as pharmaceutical companies, particularly in Europe, adhere to new regulations prohibiting the sale of drugs for capital punishment purposes, with an industry-wide held belief that to do so would be to allow misuse of medicines developed to safeguard patients’ wellbeing. States are now choosing to turn to ‘compound pharmacies’, which are not subject to federal supervision, and some states have laws in place ruling that full disclosure of the nature and origin of drugs obtained is not required.
The events surrounding Clayton Lockett’s final hours sparked outrage internationally and amplified the discussion of inequality facing potential death row residents. According to a recent study at the University of Washington, jurors in the state are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case. In addition, 77% of cases in which defendants received the death penalty involved white murder victims with only 15% of death sentences handed out to defendants whose victims were black, despite the numbers of victims in crimes committed being equal. Many claim the death penalty to discriminate against poorer defendants as the quality of one’s afforded legal representation is likely to be reflected in the outcome of the case. It can confidently be said, then, that this intersection of race and class, disproportionately represented in the USA’s criminal justice system, is certainly reflected in the courtrooms touched by capital punishment. It is worth noting, too, that over 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row in the USA since 1973.
The death penalty for murder was abolished in Britain in 1965 and no further executions have been carried out since, despite it remaining an option in cases of treason and certain military offences (e.g. mutiny) until its full abolition in 1998. According to opinion polls carried out on UK citizens, approximately half support the reintroduction of the death penalty for general murder cases, with slightly more in favour in cases involving children or police officers.
The family of Clayton Lockett has expressed their hope of closure for his victim’s family, as well as confirming that they are examining their options for a civil lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma for the failed execution. LaDonna Hollins, Lockett’s 56 year old stepmother, said: ‘We are not to torture people to death. 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.’