MCALESTER, Okla. — Officials were conducting an autopsy Wednesday on a U.S. death row inmate who writhed, clenched his teeth and appeared to struggle before prison officials halted the execution in which Oklahoma state was using a new drug combination for the first time. The man later died of a heart attack, and the botched execution was expected to intensify the debate over how states handle lethal injections.
The White House said the failed execution fell short of the humane standards required when the death penalty is carried out. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin called for an independent review of the state’s execution protocols.
The autopsy on Clayton Lockett, 38, will include an examination of the injection sites on his arms and a toxicology report to determine what drugs were in his system, medical examiner’s spokeswoman Amy Elliott said. The autopsy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was expected to last for several hours, Elliott said, and it could take two to four months to complete the toxicology report.
It is routine for the medical examiner’s office to conduct an autopsy on inmates after an execution, but Lockett’s death is unusual because his execution was halted before he was declared dead.
Lockett was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of three drugs in Oklahoma’s new lethal injection combination was administered Tuesday evening. Three minutes later, he began breathing heavily, writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow. Officials later blamed a ruptured vein for the problems with the execution, which are likely to fuel more debate about the ability of states to administer lethal injections that meet the U.S. Constitution’s requirement they be neither cruel nor unusual punishment.
Questions about execution procedures have drawn renewed attention from defence attorneys and death penalty opponents in recent months, as several states scrambled to find new sources of execution drugs because drugmakers that oppose capital punishment — many based in Europe — have stopped selling to U.S. prisons and corrections departments.
In Ohio, the January execution of an inmate who made snorting and gasping sounds led to a civil rights lawsuit by his family and calls for a moratorium. The state has stood by the execution but said Monday that it’s boosting the dosages of its lethal injection drugs.
In Oklahoma on Tuesday, the blinds eventually were lowered to prevent those in the viewing gallery from watching what was happening in the death chamber, and the state’s top prison official later called a halt to the proceedings. Lockett died of a heart attack shortly thereafter, the Department of Corrections said.
“It was a horrible thing to witness. This was totally botched,” said Lockett’s attorney, David Autry.
Defence attorneys have unsuccessfully challenged several states’ policies of shielding the identities of the source of their execution drugs. Missouri and Texas, like Oklahoma, have both refused to reveal their sources and both of those states have carried out executions with their new supplies.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama believes evidence shows the death penalty doesn’t effectively deter crime. But he said Obama believes some crimes are so heinous that the death penalty is merited and that the crimes in Lockett’s case are indisputably heinous.
But Carney said the U.S. has a fundamental standard that the death penalty must be carried out humanely, and that everyone would recognize that this case fell short.
A four-time felon, Lockett was convicted of shooting 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman and watching as two accomplices buried her alive in 1999. Neiman and a friend had interrupted the men as they robbed a home.
Tuesday was the first time Oklahoma used the sedative midazolam as the first element in its execution drug combination. Other states have used it before; Florida administers 500 milligrams of midazolam as part of its three-drug combination. Oklahoma used 100 milligrams of that drug.
“They should have anticipated possible problems with an untried execution protocol,” Autry said. “Obviously the whole thing was gummed up and botched from beginning to end. Halting the execution obviously did Lockett no good.”
Fallin, the governor, ordered a 14-day stay of execution for an inmate who was scheduled to die two hours after Lockett, Charles Warner. The Republican governor said the independent review of the state’s execution protocols would be led by Oklahoma Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson.
Robert Patton, the department’s director, halted Lockett’s execution about 20 minutes after the first drug was administered. He later said there had been vein failure. The execution began at 6:23 p.m., when officials began administering the midazolam. A doctor declared Lockett to be unconscious at 6:33 p.m.
Once an inmate is declared unconscious, the state’s execution protocol calls for the second drug, a paralytic, to be administered. The third drug in the protocol is potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Patton said the second and third drugs were being administered when a problem was noticed. He said it’s unclear how much of the drugs made it into the inmate’s system.
Lockett began writhing at 6:36. At 6:39, a doctor lifted the sheet that was covering the inmate to examine the injection site.
After an official lowered the blinds, Patton made a series of phone calls before calling a halt to the execution.
Lockett was declared dead at 7:06 p.m.
Autry, Lockett’s attorney, was immediately skeptical of the department’s determination that the issue was limited to a problem with Lockett’s vein.
“I’m not a medical professional, but Mr. Lockett was not someone who had compromised veins,” Autry said. “He was in very good shape. He had large arms and very prominent veins.”
Warner had been scheduled to be executed two hours later in the same room and on the same gurney. The 46-year-old was convicted of raping and killing his roommate’s 11-month-old daughter in 1997. He has maintained his innocence.
Lockett and Warner had sued the state for refusing to disclose details about the execution drugs, including where Oklahoma obtained them.