The White House on Wednesday said the botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate fell short of humane standards, as a flurry of complaints and questions were aired over what went wrong on Tuesday night, and whether it will affect how lethal injections are administered in the future.
Clayton Lockett, a 38-year-old convicted of shooting a teenager in 1999 and watching as two of his accomplices buried her alive, died of an apparent heart attack around 40 minutes after his lethal injection combination was administered.
“In this case ... the crimes are indisputably horrid and heinous, but it’s also the case that we have a fundamental standard in this country that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely, and I think everyone would recognize that this case fell short of that standard," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.
The White House statement came as Oklahoma officials announced that an autopsy on Lockett’s body was underway.
Lockett eventually died after receiving a trio of drugs, including a new sedative that was used for the first time in Oklahoma. The drug combination left him breathing heavily, clenching his teeth and struggling to lift his head off the execution table, with one witness describing the scene as a "violent struggle."
The execution took place despite objection over the secrecy of where the drugs came from. State officials were eventually given the all-clear when a temporary stay was overturned.
"This was a real embarrassment for the state of Oklahoma," Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Al Jazeera. "They pushed hard to do this, they were given permission to do it and they totally failed. They can’t go forward. Radical change is going to be in the wings for this process, probably in many states, not just Oklahoma."
The combination of drugs used in the execution process were the paralytic vecuronium bromide and potassium chloridem, which stops the heart. Prior to the execution, Lockett was administered the sedative midazolam, which has been used before, including in Florida, where officials administer 500 milligrams as part of its execution process. However, Oklahoma used only 100 milligrams of the drug, The Associated Press reported.
‘No manual for killing’
Dieter said it's not clear what the exact dosage should be for midazolam, which he stressed was only a sedative and “not an anesthetic to put somebody into sleep and unconsciousness.
“There's no manual for how many milligrams you need for killing somebody — these drugs are not made for that," he said. "They’re made to lessen pain and things like that ... so all of this is an experiment. There’s not a clear formula.”
The drugs used in the execution process for Lockett have come under the spotlight in recent months after pharmaceutical companies, many based in Europe and opposed to the death penalty, stopped selling them to prisons and corrections departments in the U.S. That left states scrambling to find alternatives in local pharmacies.
"Every state has had to change its method of execution because the drugs that they used to use are not available. So they’re using second and third choices — they're going down the list to find drugs that are available, not drugs that are necessarily the best choice," Dieter said.
Meanwhile, Amy Elliott, of the Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said authorities would examine Lockett's corpse as well as where on the arm the drugs were injected, and also conduct a toxicology report to determine the cause of death.
Lethal injection drugs are generally given by corrections officers with some level of training, but in this case a doctor administered them.
State corrections department spokesman Jerry Massie said that officials believe "a vein was blown and the drugs weren't working as they were designed to."
Witnesses said that Lockett clenched his jaw and fists shortly after the drugs were injected and appeared to be in pain. Prison officials covered the windows to the death chamber soon after, as it became apparent there was a problem.
"In some states, the needle has fallen out after being injected, in some states inmates have moved and made noises, but this was the worst of all those events and is going to be the one that really precipitates some change," said Dieter.
Critics have bemoaned the secrecy of the drugs' source. In fact, Lockett and another death row inmate, Charles Warner, had unsuccessfully challenged a law protecting the identity of those who supply drugs, medical supplies or equipment used in the execution process. They were granted a temporary stay that was ultimately overturned by Oklahoma’s Supreme Court. Warner, who was scheduled to be executed the same night as Lockett, has been granted a 14-day stay on his execution after an order by Gov. Mary Fallin, who ordered a full review of execution procedures following what transpired Tuesday night.
‘Veils of secrecy’
Advocacy groups have now come out in force, calling on states to be more transparent about the drugs being used, how they are administered and where they are obtained, while also calling on the 32 states where capital punishment is still legal to halt executions.
"Executions should be put on hold in Oklahoma and a full investigation needs to be conducted," Maya Foa, of the U.K.-based legal rights group Reprieve, told Al Jazeera. "More widely, states need to lift the heavy veils of secrecy that have increasingly been used to shroud the entire process — increasing the risks that the executions will be botched — and cease to conduct experimental executions."
Antonio Ginatta, the advocacy director for the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that his organization believes "two weeks of a review is not enough, and it’s not going to be enough to discover what is patently clear — that there is no safe way to administer a lethal injection. No painless way to administer a lethal injection."
While the death penalty has long been a contentious issue in the U.S., the lethal injection process has especially come under greater scrutiny over the past few months.
The attorneys for a Missouri man, convicted of murdering a couple in 1993, were unable to stop his execution earlier this month after they raised concerns about the state's secret lethal injection drugs.
Prior to that, a convicted killer in Ohio appeared to gasp multiple times in January before eventually dying more than 20 minutes after the execution process began.
Ginatta acknowledged the gruesome nature of the crimes the death row inmates were convicted of and said, “People who commit serious crimes should be held accountable,” but he also said that when states conduct executions they are “violating other human rights.”
“Each one of these executions is just providing another grisly and gruesome angle to the horrors of lethal injection and executions in general,” he said.
With wire services