The United States was riveted on Tuesday by an execution gone horribly, horribly wrong in Oklahoma, a state that’s already been in the news for botched executions as well as shady sourcing for the drugs it uses in its execution cocktail. It took inmate Clayton Lockett an agonising half hour to die on Tuesday night between the time drugs were administered and when he finally died of cardiac arrest. Oklahoma’s governor immediately issued a stay of execution for the second execution planned for that night, that of Charles Warner, and the incident sparked outcry across the United States as horrified people took to social media and news networks.
Globally, the US is one of only a handful of Western nations that still practices the death penalty. 100 nations have abolished the death penalty entirely, while another 48 haven’t used it in 10 years or more, and in some cases have moratoriums that have rendered it functionally abolished. Seven reserve it for ‘exceptional circumstances’ like war crimes, while the United States is among the 40 nations including North Korea, Syria, Iran, Yemen, and Indonesia which use it for ordinary crimes. While the United States may pride itself on not executing people for ‘crimes’ like being gay, carrying drugs, or theft, the nation’s incredibly racist justice system and notoriously unreliable conviction rates speak to deep discrimination running at the core of the death penalty’s administration—notably, both inmates in Oklahoma tonight were Black, and 34% of executions since 1976 have involved Black defendants (41% of the death row population is Black).
The issues with the death penalty in the United States have become so apparent that the EU has banned the export of execution drugs to US prisons, with several drug companies refusing to sell any such drugs to the United States, period, for fear they might be used in executions. A shortage in a supply of such drugs has led states like Oklahoma to poorly regulated ‘compounding pharmacies’ and experimental drug cocktails like the one used in tonight’s execution and in an earlier execution in January, where Michael Lee Wilson’s last words were ‘I feel my whole body burning.’
Medical ethics on the subject of participating in executions are cloudy, and physicians involved in executions typically shroud their identities, fearing recriminations from the medical community (though sanctions are unlikely). Some justify their presence on the grounds that regardless as to the legal or ethical status of the death penalty, medical providers have an obligation to provide patients with humane treatment, and that the presence of a doctor minimises the risk of painful mistakes. This isn’t always the case, though, as seen horrifyingly in the instance of a physician in Missouri who freely admitted to mixing up drugs, not using medications consistently, and witnessing botched executions.
Reinstated in 1976 after a moratorium, the death penalty in the United States has been a subject of continuous and often acrimonious debate ever since. In 2011, the execution of Troy Davis in Florida sparked nationwide outrage, and it wasn’t the first, or the last, time that residents of the United States questioned the role of the death penalty in the justice system and society at large.
Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner’s case is particularly poignant and infuriating, as the two had specifically requested a stay of execution because they were concerned about the drugs used, and they argued that they had a right to know the source of the medications and what the drug cocktail would contain. When their stay was rejected, death penalty opponents argued that it was a violation of their civil rights, and the fact that Lockett’s execution went so horrifically wrong is a testimony both to the failures of the death penalty, and to the legitimacy of their concerns.
Lockett’s execution was scheduled for 6pm. At 6:23, observers reported witnessing the administration of a sedative, with a doctor reporting that Lockett was fully sedated at 6:33. Sedation is critical in executions, as the three-drug cocktail used involves a sedative, a paralytic, and a drug that induces cardiac arrest. Without sedation, the process would be extremely painful and traumatic for the prisoner, who would suffocate to death while fully conscious.
When the second and third drugs were administered, however, Lockett was clearly alert and responsive to his surroundings, groaning and licking his lips. He reportedly tried to lift his head and was clearly in a state of physical distress. A prison official in the room said ‘something’s wrong,’ according to AP reporter Bailey Elise McBride, and the shutters between the execution chamber and the witnesses were closed. The witnesses waited for over 47 minutes for news, later learning that Lockett died of cardiac arrest at 7:06.
Some confusion initially obscured the cause of the problem – the drugs, or a blown vein. If it was the drugs, Oklahoma’s experimental drug cocktail would have been proved ineffective and dangerous, yet again. If it was a blown vein that prevented successful administration of the drugs, it was a testimony to the dangers of having inept, careless, and poorly-trained medical personnel in the execution chamber—a number of states don’t even require medical staff to be present at executions. The presence of a blown vein is easy to spot and correct and the physician present should have checked the intravenous line before administering the second and third drugs.
The grisly scene in the execution chamber horrified witnesses, and set off a firestorm of infuriated conversation. Death penalty opponents argue that execution itself is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, barred under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. Advocates have long maintained that lethal injection is a humane and effective way to conduct executions, dodging the issue of whether the state should be conducting retributive justice in the first place. As this and other recent botched executions illustrate, however, the death penalty is clearly not humane in any form.
Furthermore, Oklahoma’s mixture of drugs, like that used in some other states, is experimental. In addition to violating the 8th Amendment, Tuesday’s execution may also have been a violation of both US and international laws and policies regarding human experimentation, including the 1938 Food and Drug Act (US), the 1947 Nuremburg Code (international), the 1953 NIH Clinical Center policy (US), the 1964 Helsinki Declaration (international), and 1978’s Title 45, Part 46, Subpart C (Special Protections for Prisoners) (US). The state is effectively conducting unlicensed human experimentation on prisoners—something the US has condemned in nations like China, and rightfully so: because it’s a human rights violation. The hypocritical persistence in continuing to execute people with the use of experimental protocols while insisting on better human rights protections for prisoners in other nations doesn’t go unobserved.
States that still retain the death penalty are facing growing legal and logistical challenges to their practices. Those on the right side of history may decide to enact moratoriums or outright bans before the death penalty again reaches the Supreme Court and is ultimately struck down. Those on the wrong side of history will be remembered for it.