It took Clayton Lockett 43 minutes to die.
Doctors spent 51 minutes Tuesday night to find a vein where they could insert the needle, eventually using a vein in Lockett’s groin to administer the injection. But something went wrong. Prison officials say the line blew, meaning his vein exploded and the drug cocktail intended to execute him stopped circulating through his veins. Officials ordered a halt to the execution, but it was too late. Instead of the quick execution with minimal pain the law promised him, Lockett died of a massive heart attack. Witnesses say Lockett blinked, seized and cried out after the procedure had begun — and before officials closed the blinds on the observation room. It was the first time the state of Oklahoma used a new cocktail after weeks of fights over whether the state had to reveal the source of the drugs and other information about them. The state ordered a stay for Charles Warner, who was also scheduled for execution that night, until it can determine the causes of the failures.
“They should have anticipated possible problems with an untried execution protocol,” said David Autry, Lockett’s lawyer. “Obviously the whole thing was gummed up and botched from beginning to end. Halting the execution obviously did Lockett no good.”
Death penalty opponents and most rational humans are calling Lockett’s botched execution barbaric. But this is just one incident within a barbaric system. A Dallas Morning News timeline points out that this is at least the third execution this year where the person appeared to be in pain and not fully sedated during the administration of the lethal drugs. As European pharmaceutical companies continue to refuse to sell drugs to states that plan to use them for executions and U.S. suppliers run short, states are resorting to new, barely regulated drug combines to execute prisoners and releasing less and less information about the drugs to the public.
The frequency of botched executions is just one piece of a very ugly puzzle. Some other concerns? It is 10 times more expensive to execute someone than to imprison them for life, due in large part to the high cost of a lengthy appeals process. And that appeals process is absolutely vital — a new study says at least 4 percent of people sentenced to death are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. That study — like most reputable research on the death penalty — further notes that states have almost certainly executed people innocent of their crimes. The National Research Council says there is no reliable evidence that the existence of capital punishment reduces the number of capital crimes committed. And the death penalty is much more likely to be exercised against criminals of color than white criminals and against defendants whose victims were white than those whose victims were people of color. In short, the death penalty is expensive, ineffective and discriminatory, just like much of the criminal justice system.
Lockett committed a gruesome crime. He shot a woman and watched while his accomplices buried her alive. Warner, who still awaits execution, raped and murdered an 11-month-old. These kinds of crimes, many people say, deserve death. Their acts are so anti-social, so despicable, that their continued existence cannot be tolerated. We must remember the victims first and foremost and seek to honor them however possible, they rightly say.
The eye for an eye response is certainly appealing on a gut emotional level. If a person treats human life with such disregard, why should society treat that person with dignity? But there is a difference between an individual who commits heinous acts and a state that executes its own citizens despite the known risk of that execution rising to the level of torture. The state should be a rational actor, not a vengeful creature. Nothing about the current system — its high cost, its failure as a deterrent, its racist application — stands up to rational argument.
The popularity of the death penalty has declined steadily since 1990, according to Gallup.
Now its use is in decline too, even in Texas. That means people who might have received the death penalty are now receiving life sentences. This is not necessarily an improvement since, as Maddie so perfectly put it, “the criminal justice system in the United States is a fucked up institution that is every kind of -ist you can think of, and feeds off of the most marginalized bodies of our society in order for companies to maximize profits.”
But a reduction in death penalty use is a good first step toward creating space for policies that respond effectively to violent criminals without violating their human rights. Victims of violent crime and their families deserve justice. Society deserves criminal justice policies and procedures that effectively reduce crime and safely reintroduce offenders into society when possible. And Lockett deserved punishment for a heinous act. But not like this.