The horrific execution of Clayton Lockett by lethal injection this spring in Oklahoma took an astonishing 43 minutes to complete. Together with other botched killings, the incident has focused attention on the inexperience and incompetence that now accompanies many executions in America.
On the afternoon of April 29, 2014, a vehicle arrived in the courtyard of the prison in McAlester, Oklahoma to pick up Clayton Lockett. The driver parked in the shadow of the white prison walls. His wait, it turned out, would be longer than anticipated. The vehicle was a hearse.
Behind the wall, at 4:40 p.m., prison guards removed Clayton Lockett’s handcuffs and leg irons and forced him to get undressed so that he could take a shower. This is stipulated by the “Procedures for the Execution of Offenders Sentenced to Death.” The shower is adjacent to the execution chamber: The purpose of the procedure is to ensure that the execution is clean — in all respects.
Lockett, wearing scrubs and tennis shoes, was taken into the execution chamber at 5:20 p.m. The five men on the “strap-down team” restrained him to the gurney with seven black straps. He could only move his head at this point. When he turned it to the right, he could see a large, round clock: It was 5:26 p.m. His execution was scheduled to begin in 34 minutes.
Lockett, 38, had been on death row for 13 years. He didn’t want to die, at least not in the way the 25-page protocol — an attempt to provide a bureaucratic framework for dying — required.
When Locket was picked up for his physical examination 12 hours earlier, at 5:06 a.m., he tried to hide under his blanket. Prison officials used a stun gun to force him to comply. In the medical department, Lockett was X-rayed, again according to a precise protocol, which states that “beginning at the head [the prisoner is to be] X-rayed downward of the body. The X-rays will be taken prior to eating breakfast.” The protocol doesn’t explain why a person who is to be put to death in a few hours should be X-rayed.
Then Lockett’s veins were examined. Officials sometimes have trouble finding a vein, especially when the condemned prisoners are overweight or IV drug users, but Lockett didn’t take any drugs, was muscular and exercised daily. On this morning, the examination results stated that his veins were in good condition and readily accessible.
Lockett was scheduled to receive his last meal between noon and 1 p.m. In a “30-day information packet,” he had previously been required to enter the “name, address and telephone number of the funeral home that will pick up your remains,” as well as his final meal request. He wrote: “Chateaubriand steak (medium rare), shrimp with cocktail sauce, a baked potato, six slices of garlic toast, pecan pie, a liter of Coca-Cola Classic.” The prison personnel rejected his request because it exceeded the $15 (€12) limit specified under the state’s rules for final meals.
“I called the prison warden,” says LaDonna Hollins, Lockett’s stepmother. “I told her that I would pay every single dollar for this meal, and also, that I could deliver it myself,” she adds. She pauses for a moment as her eyes fill with tears. “I could feel the coldness coming through the phone.”
A Failed Lawsuit
Clayton Lockett was three when his mother sent him to live with his father, who was living with Hollins. From then on, she was Clayton’s closest confidante, and he called her “Mom.” On this day, Hollins is sitting in her dark living room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. There are goldfish in the aquarium and there is an open bible on the coffee table in front of her. She visited her stepson two days before the execution. They sat facing each other in the prison’s death row wing for three hours, separated by a glass panel, praying and weeping.
At some point, says Hollins, Lockett told her that he didn’t fear death, because he deserved it for the brutal murder of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman. “But I’m afraid that they will torture me, that they’ll provide me with some kind of rat poison,” he told his stepmother. “They don’t even know how to insert a needle.”
On several occasions, Lockett had heard the moans and screams coming from the execution chamber at the end of the hall. He remembered what Michael Wilson, who had been held in a cell near his, had shouted in January when the poison had been injected into his body: “I feel my whole body burning!”
He had also read in the paper that Oklahoma and other states were no longer getting the lethal injection drugs they had used for many years, after the European Union, partly at the urging of then-German Health Minister Philipp Rösler, had imposed tough restrictions on exporting the compounds. Lockett knew that the authorities had been trying out other drugs since then. He also knew that Dennis McGuire had been in agony for 26 minutes in an Ohio death chamber, gasping for air. In the end, the reasons for botched executions were always the same: the wrong drugs or unqualified personnel, and often both.
That was why Lockett had filed a lawsuit against the state over its policy of not disclosing the source of the drugs and the identity of the executioners. The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the “cruel and unusual punishment” of condemned prisoners. Lockett was afraid that he would become part of an experiment, says his stepmother. “It was as if he had sensed what was going to happen to him.”
There are currently about 3,070 people on death row in the United States. But opponents of the death penalty hope that the latest series of botched executions could usher in the end of the lethal injection, which was developed in its current form in Oklahoma in 1977 and was long seen as the most humane method of execution.
“Do me one favor,” his stepmother begged him in their last conversation. “As long as you can talk on that gurney: Talk. Let the world know how they are executing people here in Oklahoma.”
When visiting hours were over, Lockett stood up, allowed the guard to put on his handcuffs and said, with tears in his eyes: “Mom, I love you.”
“I’ll see you in the next life,” Hollins replied.
Horrifically Botched Execution
At 5:27 p.m., a paramedic and a doctor entered the execution chamber. Thus began one of the most gruesome executions in the history of the United States.
The paramedic’s job was to insert a needle, which would be used to inject the lethal drugs into Lockett’s body. He punctured the left arm with a hollow needle, but he forgot to use a bandage to keep the needle in place. By the time the bandage was brought into the room, the site was no longer usable. The paramedic tried to insert the needle at two other locations on Lockett’s arm, but he failed both times. He switched to the right arm and tried three locations there. Then he removed the prisoner’s tennis shoes and tried to insert the IV into his foot.
The doctor approached the gurney and tried to insert the needle into Lockett’s jugular before trying a subclavian vein near his collarbone. While the two men were poking around his body, Lockett heard a drumming noise echoing through death row, as the inmates banged on their cell doors for five minutes — a ritual intended as a final farewell to the condemned man.
Only a few cells away, Charles Warner was also waiting for his execution. He had said goodbye to his family and eaten his final meal. He was appointed to die at 8 p.m., on the same gurney where Lockett was now lying. But the schedule proved difficult to adhere to.
More than 10 attempts to place an IV had already failed by the time the doctor and the paramedic tried to insert it in Lockett’s right groin. They cut open his scrubs and underwear, and then used a scalpel to cut into the flesh, because the veins in the groin are deep beneath the surface. The doctor, who had never before placed an IV in the groin area with the kind of needle now at his disposal, had only been asked to substitute for a colleague two days earlier. Until the day of the execution, neither he nor the paramedic had participated in a preparatory exercise.
While the two men taped the IV to Lockett’s thigh, they discussed whether the needle might be too short for this location on the body, but they didn’t have the right needle on hand. It was now 6:18 p.m., and it had taken them 51 minutes to place an IV.
Government authorities are having more and more difficulty finding specialists for executions. The professional associations of doctors, paramedics and nurses are urging their members not to participate in executions. According to one statement, “when the healthcare professional serves in an execution under circumstances that mimic care, the healing purposes of health services and technology become distorted.” As a result, executions are carried out by doctors or nurses who are either unlicensed or acting illegally. They slip into the execution chambers like burglars, and they participate either out of conviction or for the $500 the prisons pay — in cash, to prevent the names of those involved from being documented.
The prison warden asked the doctor whether he could place a second IV, to be on the safe side. But the doctor declined her request. Then the warden ordered the IV to be covered with a sheet, supposedly to preserve Lockett’s “dignity.”
The execution was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. When the warden ordered the beige blinds in the viewing gallery opened, at 6:23 p.m., 36 pairs of eyes were staring at Lockett. The government may have moved executions from market squares to a room behind thick prison walls, but the law requires that they not be carried out entirely in secret. Journalists and Lockett’s attorneys were sitting on folding chairs in the viewing gallery.
LaDonna Hollins honored Lockett’s request and did not attend. He had told her that he didn’t want her to see what would happen to him.
The warden asked Lockett if he had any final words.
“No,” he replied.
“Then let the execution begin.”
The Search for a Clean Way of Killing
The next day, on April 30, a book was published in the United States called “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.” The author is Austin Sarat, a professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
Most Americans are in favor of the death penalty, says Sarat in his office, because they know nothing about the details of an execution. He tested his theory in a survey many years ago, when he told the respondents exactly what takes place during the use of the electric chair. Many changed their opinion afterwards.
Although about two-thirds of Americans support the death penalty, the number of executions has dropped sharply in the last decade, partly because the states are increasingly worried that something could go wrong. Ninety-eight people were executed in the United States in 1999, but only 39 in 2013. Texas leads the nation in the number of executions, although Oklahoma, with its much smaller population, was long the nation’s top executioner per capita.
Sarat knows everything there is to know about botched executions in the United States, because he has investigated every one of them. There was the 1900 hanging of Art Kinsauls in North Carolina, who failed to die during the first attempt and dangled from the rope, bleeding profusely, until the executioners forced him to climb the stepladder a second time. And then there was the case of Jimmy Lee Gray who, in 1983, gasped, groaned and went into convulsions in the Mississippi gas chamber for what seemed like an eternity. And when Pedro Medina was executed in the Florida electric chair in 1997, smoke and flames emerged from his body, and there was a smell of burning flesh in the air.
But none of this has led to any real challenge to the idea of government execution, says Sarat. Instead, he explains, officials have vowed to improve their methods and become more innovative. “The history of the death penalty is also the history of finding a clean, silent and perfect way of taking people’s lives,” says Sarat, “a death without severed heads and faces distorted in pain — without blood, fire and stench.”
To that end, the gallows and the firing squad were replaced by the gas chamber and the electric chair. With each new technology, the state pronounced its old method archaic and barbaric. And in 1977, when a medical examiner in Oklahoma invented a method to provide death by lethal injection, the search for perfection seemed complete. The belief at the time was that execution would become a medical procedure, the execution chamber an operating room and the executioner a doctor.
‘He’s Not Unconscious’
The first of the three drugs, 100 milligrams of midazolam, was now flowing into Lockett’s groin. It came from a tube that emerged from a wall behind his head. Three volunteers were sitting behind the wall in a cramped, dark room, the executioners’ room. When they arrived at the prison that afternoon, they were wearing ghost-like hoods and robes. Their job was to push the drugs from syringes into the tube, with one volunteer assigned to each drug. To avoid confusion in the darkness, they used flashlights. They were told that if problems arose, they should simply push colored pencils through holes in the wall to the execution chamber.
The midazolam was supposed to render Lockett unconscious, so that he wouldn’t feel the pain caused by the second and third drugs. Until recently, the anesthetics sodium thiopental and pentobarbital, the latter patented by the German pharmaceutical firm Bayer in 1916, were administered, but ever since the EU imposed an export ban in December 2011, thereby blocking shipments to US prisons, corrections officials have been at a loss over how to obtain the necessary drugs. In emails to their counterparts in Texas, officials from Oklahoma have jokingly asked for football-game tickets in exchange for leftover stocks of pentobarbital and California authorities reportedly sent agents to Pakistan to buy the drug.
To cover up the undignified search for lethal injection drugs, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a secrecy law three years ago. The law enables officials to conceal where the drugs they use come from, how they are acquired and whether they are being used past their expiration dates. The identity of those carrying out an execution also remains secret.
It’s over this law that Lockett had sued Oklahoma. His attorneys argued that failing to inform Lockett about which drugs would be used to kill him and who would administer them was a violation of his constitutional rights. Because of the suit, the Oklahoma Supreme Court initially granted a stay of Lockett’s execution, but it reversed its decision the next day.
The doctor examined Lockett’s pupils at 6:30 p.m. He pressed his hand against Lockett’s chest and shook him lightly. “He’s not unconscious,” the doctor said.
“I’m not,” Lockett said clearly.
Prison officials had asked for a delay of Lockett’s execution a few months earlier because they were unable to obtain the regular lethal injection drugs. Their search remained unsuccessful, but two weeks before the scheduled execution, midazolam was suddenly added to the protocol. It was a stopgap solution, because the drug had never before been used in executions in Oklahoma. Unlike the drugs previously in use, midazolam is not an anesthetic. It is instead meant to sedate patients and place them into a semi-conscious state. Doctors use it in dental surgery and colonoscopies. No one knew whether and at what dose midazolam would render Lockett unconscious.
The doctor checked Lockett’s condition again at 6:33 p.m. “He is unconscious,” he said. Lockett was no longer speaking.
In the executioners’ room, the drugs pancuronium and potassium chloride were now being injected into the tubes. The pancuronium was supposed to paralyze Lockett and suppress convulsions. It is used solely for cosmetic purposes, so as to conceal the pain. The goal was to ensure that Lockett looked peaceful as he died. Potassium chloride, often used to euthanize animals, is supposed to cause the heart to stop functioning. But without heavy sedation it produces a sensation of burning from within.
At 6:34 p.m., Lockett suddenly moved. He kicked with his leg and rolled his head to the side, his body contorting. He grunted and mumbled, and then shouted, “Man” and “Something’s wrong!” His face was twisted in agony. He cursed, but whatever he was trying to say remained incomprehensible. He raised his head and shoulders several times, as if he were trying to sit up.
In a second viewing gallery, the relatives of Lockett’s victim were also watching him suffer.
Stephanie Neiman had died 15 years ago in Oklahoma. Neiman was kneeling inside a freshly dug grave when, Lockett, then 23, loaded his sawed-off shotgun and fired at her. The recoil caused him to lose control, the gun fell to the ground and the shot hit Neiman in the shoulder. Lockett could hear her sobbing in the hole. He picked up the rifle, aimed it and shot again. The sobbing stopped.
“It’s done!” he told his accomplices. “Now bury her!”
Neiman died on that night, among oil refineries and fields, because she and her female friend had accidentally witnessed Lockett and two friends beating up a man who owed them money. After that, the men repeatedly raped Neiman’s friend. The man who had been beaten and the friend promised not to tell anyone what had happened, but 19-year-old Neiman refused to make the same promise. She had a learning disability and lacked the ability to think strategically.
“She’s not dead,” Lockett’s friends shouted, next to the hole in the ground. Neiman was breathing and her body was twisting in the dirt.
“Get the shotgun and finish her off,” Lockett ordered, but his accomplices didn’t want to do it. “Okay, then just bury her.”
Lockett later told investigators that he had heard the young woman coughing as the dirt fell on top of her. The men continued to shovel earth into the hole until the choking noises stopped.
Lockett’s body had now been twisting on the gurney for six minutes. It was only at 6:40 p.m. that the doctor lifted the sheet covering the IV and saw that the skin at the puncture hole had blown up into a balloon “smaller than a tennis ball but bigger than a golf ball,” as was later documented in the investigative report. The needle had either not punctured Lockett’s vein or had sliced it open. Instead of flowing into his bloodstream, the anesthetic and the lethal drugs had entered the tissue, where they acted more slowly and weakly. At this point, the question was whether the drugs could still kill Lockett. The members of the execution team were at a loss. They decided that they no longer wished to be observed as they worked. “We will lower the blinds temporarily,” the warden told the witnesses at 6:42 p.m.
‘They Wanted to Torture Him’
“I’m gonna show you something,” says Lockett’s stepmother. Hollins jumps up from the sofa and walks over to a table by the wall that she has converted into an altar for Lockett. It is covered with photos, of Clayton as an eight-year-old, Clayton as a teenager and, finally, a photo of him shortly before his execution. Lockett had a fellow inmate take it secretly with a smartphone that had been smuggled onto death row. He is lying on the bed, his upper body uncovered, flexing his muscles and clenching his fists. There isn’t an ounce of fat on his body. He looks like an athlete.
“And you tell me they can’t find a vein on a man like this?” asks Hollins. She is a nurse. She knows how to place IVs. She does it every day.
“They wanted to torture him. They did it intentionally. And now they’re trying to cover up everything.” It probably wasn’t intentional, but it was incompetent, the breakdown of a ramshackle system that had long claimed to be capable of delivering a gentle death, and that now seeks to conceal its own inadequacies.
An official investigative report documents what happened to Lockett after the blinds were lowered. The doctor tried to insert a new IV to inject the remainder of the lethal drugs, this time in the left groin. He tried to penetrate the skin one or two times, then gave up. The warden reached for the wall telephone and called the witness room to speak with Robert Patton, the executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Department.
“Have enough drugs been administered to cause death?” Patton asked. “No,” the doctor replied.
“Is another vein available, and if so, are there enough drugs remaining to finish the execution?”
“No,” the doctor said, adding that Lockett was now unconscious again, and that his pulse was weak.
Patton tried to reach the office of the governor, without whom nothing could be decided. He finally succeeded, but it took some time. Then he called the execution chamber again and, at 6:56 p.m., announced that the execution had been stopped.
It was unclear to the people working in the chamber whether this meant a stay of execution. According to protocol, that would require the immediate commencement of life-sustaining measures. As Lockett’s heartbeat became weaker, the men waited for clearer instructions.
The doctor pronounced Lockett dead at 7:06 p.m.
Experts believe that it would have still been possible to save Lockett’s life. The investigative report recommends ensuring greater linguistic clarity in future executions, and that the meaning of the terms “stop,” “hold” and “stay” must be clearly defined.
Race to Preserve Death Penalty
The execution of Charles Warner, the man who was scheduled to die two hours after Lockett, was postponed. He now has a new execution date of Nov. 13. A team of attorneys is fighting in court for Warner and the other 49 inmates on Oklahoma’s death row. They cite Lockett’s execution as proof that lethal injection amounts to the “cruel and unusual” punishment barred by the Constitution. Even President Barack Obama said that Lockett’s execution was “deeply troubling,” and that it exposed problems with the death penalty that must be taken seriously.
“I wouldn’t mind if he suffered for hours on that gurney,” says Republican State Representative Mike Christian in his office in the state capitol in Oklahoma City. When he heard in the spring that the Oklahoma Supreme Court wanted to stay Lockett’s execution, he threatened the justices with impeachment proceedings. Christian’s threat was the reason the court reversed the stay a day later.
“As a father, I don’t care how we put these animals to death, if by lethal injection, by the guillotine or being fed to the lions.”
Still, Christian has realized that Lockett’s execution reflects poorly on his state. “I don’t want journalists from all over the world to come to Oklahoma writing that we’re a barbaric state,” he says. This is why he is meeting with Mike Copeland, an adjunct professor at a local university. “We had a beer the other night, and suddenly there was this idea.” They look at each other enthusiastically. “Ever heard of death through nitrogen?”
Copeland spent three years working in the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau, where he went scuba-diving in his free time. “If you inhale pure nitrogen, you lose consciousness very quickly, and you’re dead soon afterwards.” The idea, he says, will save the death penalty. “Nitrogen is the most humane way to die. You simply sit there, breathe, and one minute later you’re dead.”
There are three advantages to using nitrogen, he says. First, he explains, raising his thumb, “there’s no problem with the supply. You can buy nitrogen in every hardware store.” Second, he says, raising his index finger, it’s a cheap method, because aside from the gas all you need is a plastic bag that can be placed over the condemned criminal’s head. And third, he adds, raising his middle finger, “You don’t need a doctor that has to find a vein.”
“This method is used by the poultry industry, the pork and the beef industry,” Rep. Christian adds. He nods to his friend and says: “Tell us about the pig on YouTube.”
“Well, on YouTube you can watch a pig that is confronted with nitrogen. It inhales, then becomes unconscious for a short time and walks away as if nothing had happened. This proves that nitrogen doesn’t cause any harm.”
Christian wants to promote his idea. He is convinced that he can achieve a majority in the state house, where the majority leader has indicated his support. In fact, he adds, Oklahoma should be grateful to Lockett. “His execution made us think twice. And now we’ve finally found the perfect method.”
On May 13, two weeks after the execution and a subsequent autopsy, the State of Oklahoma turned over Lockett’s body to his family, which cremated him soon afterwards. The authorities kept only one organ, allegedly for further study: Lockett’s heart.