Capital Punishment: Oklahoma Sued Over Botched Execution

[Photo by Josh Rushing, 2010 via Flickr/Creative Commons]Oklahoma state officials need to stop shrouding information about its executions, according to a lawsuit filed today.

The suit, filed by The Oklahoma Observer and the American Civil Liberties Union, stems from the botched execution in April of Clayton Lockett, one of two men who were the subject of an investigation by The Colorado Independent on Oklahoma’s questionable death penalty procedures.

The Independent’s March 18 report by reporter Katie Fretland revealed that Oklahoma had been using gray-market drugs to kill its death row inmates. It also showed a troubling flippancy among the brass who were responsible for planning executions in that state. According to records obtained by Fretland, then current and former members of Oklahoma’s Attorney General’s office joked about trading their knowledge about how to obtain unregulated death-penalty drugs with Texas in exchange for coveted football tickets to a football rivalry between the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas.

The Independent’s coverage also exposed that previous death row inmates in Oklahoma had been been killed by overdoses of an anesthetic, rather than the drugs intended to put them to death. Records showed executioners then injected the remaining drugs in the so-called “three drug cocktails” into convicts’ dead bodies for what documents refer to as disposal purposes.

The state shrouded its purchase of gray market drugs from unknown sources by paying for them with petty cash, making it impossible for the news media and other watchdogs to assess the legality and ethics of the protocols with with it planned to kill Lockett and fellow death row inmate Charles Warner.

After The Independent’s investigation, both men’s executions were postponed as lawyers – including Denver based assistant federal public defenders Madeline Cohen and Dean Sanderford – battled in court over the issue of transparency. After several legal twists and turns, the state ultimately prevailed and killed Lockett, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a 19-year-old woman, on April 24.

The procedure went wildly wrong. Lockett seemed to have fallen asleep after the first drug was administered. Twenty minutes later, he woke up and started physically struggling. The execution team closed the blinds from the group, including Fretland, gathered to witness the execution.

Today’s lawsuit demands that, for accountability purposes, all witnesses, including the news media, be able to view an execution from the moment a prison enters the execution chamber until his or her body is removed.

Lee Rowland of the American Civil Liberties Union said in statement that “The state of Oklahoma violated the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of the press to witness executions so the public can be informed about the government’s actions and hold it accountable...The death penalty represents the most powerful exercise of government authority. The need for public oversight is as critical at the execution stage as it is during trial.”

Lockett’s bungled, painful and gruesome execution prompted the Obama administration to order a federal review of execution procedures in Oklahoma, where — four months after the snafu — lethal injections are on hold.

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