Sue Ogrocki / AP

Oklahoma updates policies after botched execution

After a state report released last week on April execution, prison officials say they will use new tools to find veins

Oklahoma is renovating its death chamber and buying new equipment for executions – including a tool to allow staff to more easily find suitable veins for lethal injections – after a troubled execution earlier this year, the director of the state Department of Corrections Robert Patton said on Monday.

The move follows a state report released last week that faulted poor monitoring of the intravenous line delivering the fatal drugs during the April 29 execution, in which the prisoner writhed and gasped on a gurney for 43 minutes. 

"I am extremely confident that these changes will have executions moving smoothly in the future," Patton said.

Republican Gov. Mary Fallin said last week that more executions would not take place until the new protocols are in place.

The state plans to have the new protocols written within two weeks to correct for shortcomings revealed in the report about the troubled execution of Clayton Lockett, convicted of a 1999 murder in which he shot 19-year-old Stephanie Nieman with a sawed-off shotgun as he watched two accomplices bury her alive.

The prisons department aims to have all the recommendations made in the report in place and ready for the next Oklahoma execution, Patton told reporters.

When asked if he was embarrassed by the Lockett execution, Patton said: "It was clear that we needed a review." He added that the execution "was not botched."

The state’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) report last week blamed Lockett's flawed lethal injection on poor placement of intravenous lines, saying the medical team could not find suitable veins in Lockett's arms, legs, neck or feet before the line was inserted into his groin.

The report said a doctor and paramedic trying to execute Lockett failed nearly a dozen times to place an IV in his body and were unprepared for how to proceed once the line they secured to deliver a lethal injection began leaking drugs, causing a swelling in Lockett’s leg slightly larger than a golf ball. Death penalty opponents slammed the execution as an example of the inhumane nature of the punishment.

DPS investigators made 11 recommendations to improve the process, including having additional lethal injection drugs on hand, more training for medical personnel in the death chamber and leaving the IV area of the body exposed so it can be monitored.

Among the changes under way are a fresh coat of paint for the death chamber, new seating for witnesses and expanded medical equipment that includes a vein finder and a heart monitoring machine, Patton said.

Patton declined comment on whether the sedative midazolam, which was used for the first time in the state with Lockett, will continue to be part of Oklahoma's lethal injection method. Use of the drug is being challenged in a federal lawsuit filed by death row inmates including Oklahoma's Charles Warner, who in 1997 raped and murdered his roommate’s 11-month old baby, Adrianna Walker.

Warner was set to die on the same day as Lockett, but his execution was postponed after problems with Lockett's lethal injection. Now he is next on the state’s death penalty schedule, with his execution set for Nov. 13. 

Gov. Fallin has said she wants the new guidelines implemented before the state conducts another execution. Patton said he would inform Fallin if new procedures are not in place or training is not done before Warner’s execution day.

But critics contend there is no quick fix for a troubled system.

"The execution of Mr. Lockett represented multiple foundational failures of leadership, at various levels, including the systematic lack of transparency, which has marked this execution since before it began," said Dale Baich, an attorney for Oklahoma death row prisoners. 

President Barack Obama said in May that the execution raised questions about the death penalty in the United States. He said he would ask Attorney General Eric Holder to look into the situation.

Oklahoma is also facing lawsuits over its execution protocols and the combination of chemicals it uses. Midazolam has come under scrutiny after it was used in problematic executions in the state earlier this year, as well as Ohio and Arizona. In each case, witnesses said the inmates gasped after their executions began and continued to labor for air before being pronounced dead.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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