Botched executions demean the nation and justice

04/30/2014 6:27 PM

04/30/2014 6:27 PM

Oklahoma officials took a risky and arrogant gamble with the execution of an inmate and failed in the most appalling way.

Repercussions from the botched execution Tuesday night of Clayton Lockett should send clear messages to other states, in particular Missouri.

Cease with the secrecy. Respect the judicial process. Do not take chances that a state-sponsored killing with untested drugs will proceed smoothly.

Lockett died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after being administered the first of what was supposed to be three drugs, and less than half an hour after the state’s director of prisons called off the execution. Lockett had been writhing on his gurney and was heard by witnesses to say, “oh, man.” Following his death, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a stay of a second execution planned for later Tuesday.

As Missouri has done recently, Oklahoma relied on untested lethal drugs as it planned for the executions of Lockett and Charles Warner. Both states worked hard to conceal the identity of the supplier — although information emerged that Missouri for a time was using a compounding pharmacy in Tulsa.

The weeks leading to the scheduled Oklahoma executions were marked by intense conflict among politicians and the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

After judges ordered a delay in the two scheduled executions, in response to concerns about secrecy surrounding the lethal drugs, Fallin declared the court had no constitutional authority in the case and she intended to forge ahead. A lawmaker drafted a resolution calling for the judges’ impeachment.

Faced with the political opposition, the judges responsible for the stay regrettably reversed course and said the execution could proceed.

Bullying and defiance of the judiciary are always dangerous, and never more so than when questions of life and death are on the line. It happens too frequently. Missouri has flouted the judicial process three times since November by executing inmates before their final appeals were exhausted.

Politicians resent attempts by inmates’ attorneys to delay executions. But the debacle on Tuesday in Oklahoma makes clear that lawsuits on behalf of condemned prisoners have a point.

Lockett’s attorneys pleaded unsuccessfully for a review of the execution drugs and their supplier. Now Fallin and others have no cover to respond to charges that they irresponsibly violated Lockett’s right not to be subjected to cruel or unusual punishment.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Wednesday that the May 21 execution of condemned killer Russell Bucklew would proceed on schedule.

Nixon should shelf the hubris. Bucklew’s attorneys have produced a credible medical opinion affirming that the inmate suffers from a rare vascular condition and “a substantial risk exists” that injection of a lethal drug could lead to a prolonged and painful execution. Nixon should postpone the execution and seek more information.

More broadly, the U.S. Supreme Court must recognize the unconstitutional nature of states concealing the contents and methods that they’ll use to kill.

Uniform standards for transparency and caution are necessary. States like Oklahoma and Missouri obviously can’t be trusted to do the right thing.

Recent problems with lethal injections arose after European nations, which correctly oppose the death penalty, stopped supplying anesthesia drugs to be used in executions. That has left states casting about for deadly drugs, usually turning to unregulated compounding pharmacies.

Executions, like the crimes that prompt the punishment, are an ugly business; they do nothing to make society safer or better. States should repeal their death penalty laws. If they won’t, courts should at least ban the secrecy.

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