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The Botched Execution of Clayton Lockett and Why I'm Ambivalent About the Death Penalty

It turns out the chemicals failed to rush into Lockett's body quickly enough -- something having to do with a "vein failure" -- and hence the slow death. Clayton Lockett was sentenced in a court of law to die, and death is what he got. Though it should never have happened this way.
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Photo: Lockett's victim, Stephanie Neiman, two weeks before her death.

In the Summer of 1999, Clayton Lockett and two accomplices, including a man named Shawn Mathis, were burglarizing a home when they were interrupted by 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman as she dropped off her friend who happened to live there. Neiman put up a fight when Lockett attempted to grab the keys to her new Chevy pickup truck. So the men beat her, wrapped her arms, mouth and legs with duct tape and then Lockett and his cohorts beat up Neiman's friend, as well as another resident of the home and that person's 9-month-old child.

It gets worse.

Neiman and her friends were abducted and driven out to a remote country road. Lockett and his victims waited while Mathis chipped away at the ground, digging a small grave along the road. Neiman was placed in the ditch and Lockett shot her with a sawed off shotgun. But she survived and began pleading for her life. Another shot, but this time the gun jammed. A third shot hit its target.

But Stephanie Neiman was still alive. So Lockett and Mathis buried her anyway. Alive.

Fast forward to Tuesday night. After being prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to death, with the ruling upheld by an Oklahoma appellate court, Lockett was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at the state penitentiary in McAlester, OK. The chemical cocktail used for the execution hadn't been tested. The Guardian's Katie Fretland reported earlier in the week:

The state plans to lethally inject Lockett...with midazolam followed by vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride. Florida has used a similar method, but it employed a dose of midazolam that is five times greater. And Ohio used midazolam with a different drug, hydromorphone, in the January execution of Dennis McGuire, which took longer than 20 minutes.

Oklahoma corrections spokesman Jerry Massie briefed the media and said the executions will likely take longer than normal, because the first drug is expected to work more slowly.

“Don’t be surprised,” Massie said.

In spite of Massie's eerie caveat, it appears as though corrections officials administering the injections were very surprised when the execution went nightmarishly awry.

Ten minutes into the procedure, Lockett lapsed into unconsciousness. But then, minutes later, he began to writhe and convulse. The AP reported that Lockett was "clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow." The convulsing and gasping reportedly continued for another 10 minutes. Spectators were blocked from continuing to view the scene. The execution was finally aborted after an agonizing 24 minutes. But Lockett died of a heart attack more than an hour later.

It turns out the chemicals failed to rush into Lockett's body quickly enough -- something having to do with a "vein failure" -- and hence the slow death. Clayton Lockett was sentenced in a court of law to die, and death is what he got. Though it should never have happened this way.

I wanted to lead off this post with the story of what exactly Lockett did to find himself strapped to a gurney inside an execution chamber. In discussions of the death penalty, it's often too easy to overlook or even forget what execution-worthy trespasses were committed, therefore the criminal is often granted undue sympathy. Make no mistake, Lockett was the worst of the worst -- burying a teenager alive, beating a 9-month-old baby, multiple kidnappings, burglary and inflicting psychological torture upon the slain teen's friends by forcing them to watch. Unforgivable and worthy of harsh punishment.

Clearly, I'm ambivalent about the death penalty. On one hand, I can't help but to be satisfied that Lockett is gone. Admittedly, this is nothing more than gut instinct and a very emotional, primal, human sense of cold, hard justice. This man took a young woman's life in one of the most grisly ways possible and therefore I refuse to shed a tear, nor am I capable of doing so, over the fact that the state of Oklahoma forcibly shuffled him off this mortal coil.

On the other hand, and objectively speaking, the death penalty has proved to be an ineffective deterrent, and in terms of recidivism, locking up murderers like Lockett for the rest of his life without parole takes care of that. But what truly makes the death penalty less appealing are circumstances like this horrendously botched execution along with the reality that, according to a recent study, 4.1 percent or one in 25 Americans who are sentenced to die happen to be innocent.

That's egregiously unacceptable. Unless the penalty can be carried out in a more humane way, and unless there's indisputable proof of guilt either ascertained by a full and uncoerced confession or based on undeniable DNA evidence which has been verified, tested, re-tested and exhaustively adjudicated, the death penalty shouldn't be a sentencing option. There's no reason, in spite of the brutal nature of his crimes, that Lockett should have died in that practically medieval way. His penalty was death, not 24 minutes of what can only be defined as state-induced torture... and then eventual death. Torture wasn't part of the deal. If Jerry Massie and others knew there could be a problem, why risk the Department of Corrections' reputation as well as the possibility that the felon might survive? Why attempt an experimental process? The DOC had one job: make sure Lockett dies, and dies expeditiously. They failed to do their job in the most spectacularly cruel and unusual way possible.

It turns out death penalty states including Oklahoma have been scrambling to find new chemical combinations due to the fact that pharmaceutical companies stopped producing the "safest" drug previously used in lethal injections: sodium thiopental. So the guilt is obviously shared among many, though many drug companies have discontinued sodium thiopental for humanitarian reasons.

Do I believe the world is a better place without Lockett in it? I have to be honest and say absolutely -- yes. But that is in no way an endorsement of how it occurred or the system as it currently exists. Executions, if they are to continue here, should be noticeably rare and reserved for the most vile and unrepentant among us. However, unless we can guarantee proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and with airtight certainty, and unless a process can be devised that's both quick and fool-proof, the death penalty, as with any policy this morally delicate and yet this disturbingly imperfect, should be shelved.

One last thing: don't forget Stephanie Neiman. The reason Lockett chose to bury her alive was because she bravely told him that if she were to be set free she would call the police. For that, she was killed and under circumstances arguably more harrowing than Lockett's. She died trying to do the right thing, and her killer died because he did one of the worst things imaginable.