Chaotic night at Lockett execution kickstarted five years of death penalty turmoil

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Clayton Lockett. 
If there’s one thing that should never become routine to cover as a journalist, it’s an execution.

Though I’d covered three other executions in the past and knew what to expect, I knew the execution of Clayton Lockett five years ago was likely to be different.

Oklahoma’s prison system was using a new, unproven sedative — midazolam — that most experts said may not fully anesthetize Lockett before the second and third drugs in the state’s lethal cocktail kicked in. (The U.S. Supreme Court has said such a situation could run afoul of the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment because it risks rendering the inmate feeling like he’s being burned alive while unable to move.)

On top of that, events set in motion by Gov. Mary Fallin meant two inmates were scheduled for execution on the same night — April 29, 2014 — with just two hours between for prison staff to get ready.

Fallin wasn’t exactly on standby at the Capitol making sure the high-stakes event went smoothly. As we later learned, she was attending a Thunder NBA playoff game. The state’s attorney general at the time, Scott Pruitt, wasn’t anywhere to be found either.

An inexperienced doctor and a prison lacking proper IV equipment added to the risk something could go wrong for the state. Still, Oklahoma pressed on with its plan to execute Lockett, a ruthless killer who ordered a 19-year-old girl shot and buried because he wanted her truck.

The night began when Cary Aspinwall and I, both working for the Tulsa World at the time, piled into my SUV along with World photographer John Clanton for the drive to McAlester.

In more than 25 years covering criminal justice in Oklahoma, I was never the first to raise my hand to witness an execution. Such an assignment should never be forced on anyone but it’s also an essential part of our job to ensure the state follows the law. So I witnessed my share through the years, but no more than necessary.

Covering an execution is a whole lot of hurry up and wait. At the appointed time, journalists are allowed into the prison media center, a one-story white cinderblock building on the grounds of the aging Oklahoma State Penitentiary, equipped with outlets, long plastic tables and metal folding chairs.

About an hour before Lockett’s scheduled 6 p.m. execution, prison staff drew the names of media witnesses. After problems with this new drug in other states and a fierce legal battle between our governor and state courts, journalists from around the world showed up to cover the event but only reporters working for state outlets would get the few available seats.

Cary and I decided a few weeks earlier that I would witness Lockett’s execution, if selected, and she would handle the second execution, of Charles Warner.

I was proud that the World was among a few, possibly the only, media outlets to devote significant attention to the victims in both cases – 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman and 11-month-old Adriana Waller — before Lockett’s botched execution became an international news story.

About 5:30 p.m., I was among a dozen journalists from across the state loaded into two white vans and driven a short distance to the prison’s “H unit,” where death row is housed. We had to leave everything behind – purses, wallets, watches, phones and even our own notebooks and pens.

After we passed through the metal detectors, we were patted down and prison staff handed each of us a small spiral notebook and pen.

We were led into a small room, death row’s law library, to wait. Those of us who had witnessed executions knew Lockett’s fellow inmates might give him a send off by clanging on their cell bars. The racket is a sign of respect but we weren’t sure if Lockett — a notoriously difficult inmate who kept to himself — would receive it.

About 5:40 p.m. we heard the eerie sound of clanging bars coming through the air vents.

About 10 minutes later, prison guards led the 12 of us from the law library down a long, sterile hallway toward the execution viewing chamber, directing us into a row of metal folding chairs pressed up against the wall.

The execution chamber is actually four small rooms that share common walls. There’s the main room where the inmate lies under a white sheet strapped to a gurney, with the doctor, the prison’s warden and a couple of other prison staff in the room with him.

The death chamber adjoins the main viewing room, where state officials, attorneys and media witnesses watch the process through large picture windows. A second viewing room with one-way glass windows sits behind this room, reserved for relatives of the victim who want to observe the execution.

The fourth room is a windowless chamber where three volunteer executioners wait to hear the warden’s direction before pushing syringes full of lethal drugs into tubes leading through holes in the wall and down into the inmate’s body.

The blinds in the viewing windows are normally raised a few minutes after 6 p.m. but on this night, they remained closed until well after that time. We later learned the doctor and paramedic made increasingly frantic attempts to start Lockett’s IV, despite lacking properly sized needles. (Oklahoma law allows the state to keep the names of the doctor and other execution participants a secret so there’s no way to know what their qualifications are.)

At 6:23 p.m., the blinds were finally raised. Asked if he had any last words, Lockett said no and Warden Anita Trammell ordered the execution to begin. That’s when 50 units of midazolam, the unproven new sedative, flowed into his IV.

A few minutes later, the doctor checked Lockett and said he was still conscious. A few more minutes ticked by on the plain black and white clock above Lockett’s gurney. Another consciousness check of sorts. This time, the doctor declares Lockett unconscious.

Not long after the lethal second and third drugs are pushed, I notice the first movement. A slight kick of his right leg. Then his head rolls to the side and he mumbles something.

A horrific scene unfolds as Lockett begins writhing and bucking against his restraints. It looks like he’s trying to get up, I thought. One of his defense attorneys began crying in the viewing chamber.

Lockett rolls his head from side to side, mumbling phrases some witnesses understood. All I could hear him say was “man.” He lifts his head and shoulders off the gurney several times, clenching his teeth. It’s pretty clear to me he’s in pain. (The Supreme Court has said inmates aren’t entitled to a pain free execution but that states shouldn’t wantonly inflict pain either.)

After what seems like an eternity but was actually about three minutes after Lockett began moving, the doctor gets up from his chair. He lifts up the sheet to check him and then whispers something to the warden.

“We’re going to lower the blinds temporarily,” the warden says.

A black landline phone rings in the viewing chamber and various state officials scurry in and out. Time creeps by and I want to run out of the place to start writing. Instead I write whole paragraphs furiously on my notebook.

Prison guards admonish us to be quiet and stay in our seats as some of the reporters begin interviewing Lockett’s defense attorneys, who watched the same shocking scene with us.

At 6:50 p.m., Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton tells us the execution has been “stopped.”

“We’ve had a vein failure in which the chemicals did not make it into the offender,” he says.

Of course veins don’t fail. But improperly placed IVs certainly do, as a state report later noted. Even government systems that have worked with lethal efficiency for years can fail when deprived of proper resources, oversight and transparency when things go wrong.

Ziva Branstetter works as the Corporate Accountability Editor at the Washington Post and was former Editor in Chief at The Frontier.

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Death penalty timeline
2014
April 29 – Clayton Darrell Lockett, 38, is executed. The execution was halted after a supposedly unconscious Lockett began speaking and writhing on the table. He died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began. Charles Frederick Warner was set to be executed as well, but it was not carried out following the Lockett debacle.
Sept. 30 – After months of investigation and review, DOC releases its revised execution protocol. The protocol mirrors that of Arizona, where Director Robert Patton formerly worked.
Oct. 10 – DOC officials show off the renovated execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. More than $106,000 was spent on the renovation, most of which was spent updating the operations room and death chamber itself. So far it has been used only once.

2015
Jan. 15 – Charles Frederick Warner, 47, is executed. It is later learned that a wrong drug — potassium acetate rather than potassium chloride — was used in his execution.
April 14 – Nitrogen gas inhalation adopted by state Legislature as execution option.
Sept. 16 – The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals stays the execution of Richard Glossip mere hours before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection. A new execution date is set for Sept. 30.
Sept. 30 – DOC officials realize they have again purchased potassium acetate instead potassium chloride as they prepare to execute Richard Glossip later that day. Glossip’s execution was halted.
Oct. 2 – Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals imposes indefinite stay on all executions.

2016
Nov. 8 – Despite state’s recent problems conduction executions, not to mention the court-mandated stay, Oklahoma voters elect to enshrine executions in the state’s constitution. The vote ensures capital punishment will be available even if higher courts later rule lethal injection unconstitutional.

2018
March 14 – Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh announces DOC will use nitrogen gas as primary method of execution.

2019
March 13 – Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter tells television station KFOR that the delay in finishing the state’s new death penalty protocol is due to difficulties in finding a device that will administer nitrogen gas, saying that manufacturers of such devices are wary of public blowback.

March 28 – Hunter tells attendees at an Oklahoma District Attorneys Council meeting that, unable to purchase the equipment needed to administer nitrogen in an execution, the state would instead look to build its own device.

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Ziva Branstetter

Editor in Chief / Staff Writer

Ziva maintains she was always too nosy to be anything other than a reporter. Though she's on a new adventure with The Frontier, she spent more than 25 years in the newspaper business, making politicians nervous and making sure readers got the truth. Contact: ziva@readfrontier.com or 918-520-0406.
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