Oklahoma Department of Corrections/AP

Okla. botches execution: Inmate writhes in ‘violent struggle’ before dying

Condemned man had challenged secrecy surrounding execution drug; a second inmate’s planned execution is postponed

A botched execution that used a new drug combination left an Oklahoma inmate writhing, twitching and clenching his teeth on the gurney Tuesday, leading prison officials to halt the proceedings before the inmate's eventual death from a heart attack. Officials eventually lowered blinds to prevent people in the viewing gallery from watching what was happening in the death chamber.

Clayton Lockett, 38, was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of the state's new three-drug lethal injection combination was administered. Three minutes later, though, he began breathing heavily and straining to lift his head off the pillow.

Lockett also groaned "Man” and “Something’s wrong,” witnesses said, after officials had already declared him unconscious, The New York Times reported.

Before the ill-fated execution started, Lockett chose not to speak final words, Katherine Fretland, a Guardian reporter, told Al Jazeera.

She described Lockett’s final movements as a “violent struggle” as he was strapped to the gurney.

“No one who has witnessed an execution like this has seen anything like this,” Fretland said.

After about 20 minutes, the state's top prison official called a halt to the proceedings. Lockett died of a heart attack a short time later, the Department of Corrections said.

"It was a horrible thing to witness. This was totally botched," said Lockett's attorney, David Autry.

The apparent failure of the execution is likely to fuel more debate about the ability of states to administer lethal injections that meet the U.S. Constitution's requirement that they be neither cruel nor unusual punishment.

That question has drawn renewed attention from defense 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 prisons and corrections departments.

“I think this is one more botched execution in a recent rash of many botched executions in just this year alone. People are going to notice. States notice what other states are going to do,” Deborah Denmo, a law professor at Fordham University, told Al Jazeera.

“There’s no federal mixture of drugs. Every death penalty state picks its own lethal injection protocol,” Denmo said.

Tuesday was the first time Oklahoma used the drug 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.

Several states have gone to court to shield the identities of the new sources of their execution drugs. Missouri and Texas, like Oklahoma, have refused to reveal their sources, but both of those states have since successfully carried out executions with their new supplies.

"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."

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin ordered a 14-day stay of execution for another inmate, Charles Warner, who was scheduled to die two hours after Lockett. She also ordered the state's Department of Corrections to conduct a "full review of Oklahoma's execution procedures to determine what happened and why during this evening's execution."

Once an inmate is declared unconscious, the state's execution protocol calls for the second drug, which paralyzes the inmate. The third drug in the protocol is potassium chloride, which stops the heart. Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said the second and third drugs were being administered when a problem was noticed; it's unclear how much of the drugs made it into the inmate's system.

"There was some concern at that time that the drugs were not having that [desired] effect, and the doctor observed the line at that time and determined the line had blown," Patton said at a news conference afterward, referring to Lockett's vein rupturing.

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."

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 on the death penalty. The state has stood by the execution but said Monday that it is boosting the dosages of its lethal injection drugs.

A four-time felon, Lockett was convicted of shooting 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman with a sawed-off shotgun and watching as two accomplices buried her alive in rural Kay County in 1999 after Neiman and a friend arrived at a home the men were robbing.

Warner had been scheduled to be put to death 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.

The case, filed as a civil matter, placed Oklahoma's two highest courts at odds and prompted calls for the impeachment of state Supreme Court justices after the court last week issued a rare stay of execution. The high court later dissolved its stay and dismissed the inmates' claim that they were entitled to know the source of the drugs.

By then, Fallin had weighed in on the matter by issuing a stay of her own — a one-week delay in Lockett's execution that resulted in both men being scheduled to die on the same day.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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