New York Times editorial: State-sponsored horror in Oklahoma

New York TimesMay 2, 2014 

Jim Morin / Miami Herald (May 1, 2014)

MCCLATCHY

At 6:36 p.m. on Tuesday in McAlester, Okla., Clayton Lockett started kicking his leg, then twitching, then writhing and moaning in agony, and everyone watching knew something had gone terribly wrong.

Lockett, a convicted murderer, was strapped to a gurney in the death chamber of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, about to be executed by lethal injection, but the untested combination of a sedative and a paralyzing agent had failed.

According to an eyewitness account by a reporter for the Tulsa World, Lockett tried to raise himself up, mumbled the word "man," and was in obvious pain.

Officials hastily closed the blinds on the chamber and told reporters the execution had been stopped because of a "vein failure." But at 7:06, the inmate was pronounced dead of a heart attack.

This horrific scene -- the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment -- should never have happened. The Oklahoma Supreme Court tried to stop it last week, concerned that the state refused to reveal the origin of the deadly cocktail.

But several lawmakers threatened to impeach the justices, and Gov. Mary Fallin blindly ignored the warning signs and ordered the execution to proceed. (She said it was outside the jurisdiction of the court, which normally deals with civil matters.)

On Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after her employees tortured a man to death, Fallin suddenly showed an interest in execution procedures. She ordered an independent review of the injection protocol, halting further state killings until the investigation is complete.

She should have gone much further and followed other governors and legislatures in banning executions, recognizing that the American administration of death does not function.

Lockett's ordeal, along with the botched deaths of other inmates around the country, showed there is no reliable and humane method of execution.

As Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon said in 2011: "I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor."

Seven states have put the death penalty on hold over the last five years because of issues of fairness or methods; another 11 states are debating the issue.

Even in states where the death penalty is applied, the number of executions has fallen sharply since 2009.

Republicans in Oklahoma seemed so eager to buck this tide that they ignored what happened during a January execution, when an inmate named Michael Lee Wilson said "I feel my whole body burning" just before the drugs killed him.

Many drug companies, fearful of political attack, have stopped supplying the means of execution, and states determined to inflict the maximum punishment have turned to questionable sources like compounding pharmacies for lethal chemicals.

Oklahoma, among other states, won't say where it is getting the drugs, leading one state judge to say "I do not think this is even a close call" that the execution procedures are unconstitutional.

The medieval mechanics of death, though, are hardly the only reason that states are abandoning the practice. There is growing evidence that capital sentences are handed out in an arbitrary and racially biased way, often to innocent victims.

A new study published by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that more than 4 percent of all death-row defendants are innocent.

The authors reached that figure by extrapolating from the growing number of exonerations of death-row inmates.

They accused Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia of miscalculating when he wrote in 2007 that convictions in American courts have only a 0.027 percent error rate.

"That would be comforting, if true," the study says. "In fact, the claim is silly."

Even more disturbing, the report says, is the stark reality for innocent people sentenced to death: most will never be exonerated.

Jurists and lawmakers are increasingly aware that an immediate moratorium on death is the only civilized response to this arbitrary cruelty.

As Wallace Carson Jr., the former chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, put it recently, "the exceptional cost of death penalty cases and the seemingly haphazard selection of which cases deserve the death penalty outweigh any perceived public benefit of this sanction."

The "exceptional cost" refers not just to dollars and cents. It refers to the moral diminishment of the United States when a man dies by the hasty hand of government, writhing in pain.

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service