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Demise of death penalty?

A botched execution creates a new chapter in the capital punishment debate.

Ben Felder May 7th, 2014

In the end, Clayton Derrell Lockett’s botched execution was still quicker and less violent than that of Stephanie Neiman, the 19-year-old girl he himself executed in 1999.

After shooting her twice, Lockett ordered a friend to bury Neiman in a shallow grave. Still alive and pleading for mercy, Neiman choked on dirt as it was thrown on top of her.

For supporters of capital punishment, and the Neiman family, last week’s execution of Lockett was justice, no matter how complicated the execution process that took 40 minutes to kill Lockett.

“She was the joy of our life,” Neiman’s family said in a prepared statement following Lockett’s execution on April 29. “We are thankful this day has finally arrived and justice will finally be served.”

Minutes into the execution process, Lockett’s body began to convulse as prison officials attempted to revive him. Lockett later died of a heart attack, throwing a new wrinkle into the debate over state-sanctioned killings.

“It looked like torture,” said Dean Sanderford, an attorney for Lockett.

“His vein exploded,” Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton was quoted as saying in The Tulsa World.

Examining the protocol of injecting the three drugs used to induce Lockett’s death, Patton said, “The doctor observed the line and determined that the line had blown.”

The execution debate
Sixty percent of Americans support capital punishment, according to Gallup public opinion and research company. However, that’s a drop from a high of 80 percent in the mid 1990s, and last week’s failed execution attempt in Oklahoma could intensify the spotlight on capital punishment and grow the debate about whether or not it is an appropriate form of punishment in today’s modern society.

“The gap between those who support the death penalty and those who are not in support of it has greatly narrowed,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “This is a graphic picture of what the death penalty really is.”

Rust-Tierney said she saw Oklahoma’s failed execution as a chance to spark a national conversation about capital punishment, especially when polls show more of the public are viewing the practice as inhumane.

In Oklahoma, some lawmakers have called for a halt to all executions while an investigation is done into how drugs are administered.

Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Forest Park, announced a resolution to end capital punishment in Oklahoma for one year. While she doesn’t expect the issue to get much of a debate on the Senate floor, Johnson said Oklahoma needed to step up on this issue.

“I can’t imagine a bigger debacle for the state of Oklahoma,” she said at a press conference last week. “Nationally and internationally, we’re on the stage right now, and the world is looking to us. The eyes of the world are on us as to how we are going to resolve the issues that are here before us today.”

The botched execution drew criticism from the United Nations, which referred to it as “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.” President Barack Obama also commented on the incident and said the federal government would conduct its own review of capital punishment.

“What happened in Oklahoma is deeply troubling,” Obama said last week. “This situation in Oklahoma I think just highlights some of the significant problems there.”

Across the United States, 39 people were put to death in 2013, which is less than half the number from just 15 years ago. Execution verdicts have declined, and opponents of capital punishment have had some success in delaying executions with lawsuits and other legal challenges.

Despite the decline in executions and a steady rise in opponents to the practice, Oklahoma remains one of 34 states that recognize capital punishment.

Opponents have challenged the state’s use of controversial drugs and its refusal to disclose the source of those drugs administered in an execution.

Lockett was momentarily successful in postponing his death before the state Supreme Court validated his execution and the practice of keeping the drug sources and manufacturers a secret.

Full examination and fallout
Tuesday’s failure gives opponents of the practice a platform to speak from, and even supporters of the practice, such as Gov. Mary Fallin, have had to admit that executions should be put on hold until more can be learned about how the state goes about killing people.

“I have asked the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of Oklahoma’s execution procedures to determine what happened and why during this evening’s execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett,” Fallin said in a statement less than an hour after Lockett’s death. “I have issued an executive order delaying the execution of Charles Frederick Warner for 14 days to allow for that review to be completed.”

A few days later, Fallin announced that an independent investigation would look into the botched execution and all other executions would be put on hold until it was complete, which could be months.

What last week’s execution will mean for local politics is yet to be seen. Republican lawmakers, who hold a supermajority in the state, have been slow to comment on the incident. Considering 2014 is an election year, it’s likely the issue of capital punishment will be a talking point for candidates in the coming weeks and months. However, in a state that has executed more people than just two other states — Texas and Virginia — and has the highest rate per capita, local opposition might be slow to rise.

Broken down by party affiliation, Gallup reports that 81 percent of Republicans support capital punishment, which is a few points higher than just three years ago.

Whether or not the act of capital punishment comes under attack, the debate over the secrecy of drugs used in Oklahoma is not ending anytime soon.

“This is not about whether these two men are guilty; that is not in dispute,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oklahoma. “Rather, it comes down to whether we trust the government enough to allow it to kill its citizens, even guilty ones, in a secret process.”

The ACLU’s legal director, Brady Henderson, said Lockett’s execution highlighted the need for the public to have access to information about the drugs used.

“If we are to have executions at all, they must not be conducted like hastily thrown-together human science experiments,” Henderson said.

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