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Capital Punishment Watch, Cont'd--UPDATED

Last night marked another horrific chapter in our nation's practice of capital punishment. In Oklahoma, two executions were scheduled for last night, following a new three-drug protocol. The first drug administered was midazolam, already used as part of a botched execution in Florida. (see my previous post on this topic for pharmacologic details and links.)

About 10 minutes into the first execution, 38-year old Clayton Lockett was declared unconscious by a physician.  According to CNN, Lockett sat up and tried to speak 16 minutes into his execution. He was seen to be writhing or convulsing on the gurney, and about 20 minutes into the process, his vein "exploded," executioners said, causing them to halt the process. At that point, guards closed the windows so the witnesses could no longer see what was happening. 43 minutes into the process, Lockett apparetly suffered a massive heart attack and died. 

The legal battle centered around a prisoner's right to know the source of the drugs to be used to execute him or her. A stay on Lockett's execution was lifted last week when a judge ruled that there was no such right. After last night's experience, executions are again on hold in OK for at least 2 weeks.

The plan was to render Lockett unconscious with midazolam, then stop his breathing (and all muscular activity) with the paralytic drug vercuronium bromide, then stop his heart with potassium chloride.

What could have gone wrong? Of course, I wasn't there, and can't speak with certainty, but here are two possibilities. 

Benzodiazepines like midazolam can rarely have paradoxical effects: a drug that usually renders one deeply sedated and relaxed, and has anti-convulsant properties, can cause agitation, anxiety, aggression, talkativeness, rage, violent behavior, and delirium, often states not recalled by the patient upon recovery. The midazolam dose used for sedation is much lower than that used for execution, but since Mr. Lockett's vein "exploded," it's unclear what dose he actually received, or, from the information given, what his actual state of consciousness was. The effects of midazolam can be reversed with Flumazenil, (a benzodiazepine-receptor antagonist) but did the executioner have a reversal agent on hand? Reversal of midazolam with Flumazenil can cause seizures. When the execution was stopped, efforts were made to resuscitate Lockett, but details aren't clear.

The other possibility is more troubling. According to protocol, after the victim is declared unconscious executioners begin injecting the second two drugs. According to OK Department of Corrections director Robert Patton, the second two drugs were being administered when Lockett began to sit up and attempt to speak. Clearly the paralytic vercuronium had no effect. But what about the potassium bromide?

Potassium chloride is the drug in this cocktail used to stop the heart. It is an acceptable drug for animal euthanasia ONLY in anesthetized animals, and is condemned as inhumane otherwise because of the pain associated with stopping the heart of a conscious animal

Did Lockett experience paradoxical excitation from midazolam, and then suffer a heart attack? Or did OK somehow manage to kill a more-or-less conscious Lockett with the effect of potassium chloride alone, a death condemned by veterinarians as too cruel for livestock? 

And when will the US finally come to its senses and stop capital punishment? The moral case against capital punishment is clear. But even if it were morally right for the state to kill its prisoners, it's becoming clearer and clearer that it just can't be done competently.

UPDATE--well, it just gets worse. This from OK department of Corrections timeline, reported in the NYTimes. Apparently after nearly an hour of hunting for a vein, the phlebotomist wound up placing a single line in Lockett's femoral vein. It is standard procedure to have two patent IV's for executions, in case one line blows. (IV catheters can go wrong in a couple ways. Most commonly, the catheter slips out of the vein or was never properly placed to start with--certainly possible in the femoral vein, a deeper and trickier vein to securely place a line in than the usual arm, hand or leg. Veins can rupture, but a slipped or misplaced catheter seems more likely.) For modesty, the injection site was covered when the injection was made. Once Lockett seemed unconscious, the second two drugs were injected, drugs which can be painful if injected outside a vein. Lockett woke up. The executioners apparently DIDN'T HAVE ENOUGH DRUGS to complete the process, given the leakage of the first dose, even if they could have found a vein. How can this be true, since a second execution was scheduled for the same night?? And how lacking in basic medical foresight.

This is more than botched--it's a disgrace, a travesty of grand proportion. Utterly, utterly incompetent. 



Commenting Guidelines

Consider a hard-working couple with two kids.  The father is shot dead in front of  his house, and the mother, who is not terribly bright, has to raise the kids alone on a meagre salary.   It seems to me that if a community is rich enough to afford rehabilitation for the murderer that it is also has obligations to those individuals whose lives have been shattered by the failure to police the streets.

Now let's move forward 10 years.  Those two children are now on drugs.  The older one kills someone in a robbery for dope.  Does the community owe him rehabilitation?  There's a terrible irony in such cases -- the reason the kid needs rehab is because his dad was murdered.  

ISTM that the community has the obligation to get to the *root causes* of kids on dope who murder, and that is 1) lack of education and 2) lack of opportunity.  And we're the ones responsible that that.  So ultimately, who is responsible for all the killing and all the need for rehabilitation?  Sure, the killers.  But they aren't the only ones who have failed.

The difficulty with drones is the way we blur the line between war and our criminal justice system. Against a uniformed army whom we're at war with, there wouldn't be any problem. The drone wouldn't be any different than a bomber. Instead of this clear threat, we are opposing a loose grouping of organizations without clear memberships who are unable to surrender. This makes civilian casualties very likely, creates problems with the sovreignty of other nations, and normalizes a set of rules (the laws of war) that were intended to be used on in extraordinary circumstances. I would move the drones into the Air Force and focus our counterterrorism efforts in conventional law enforcement.

Consider a hard-working couple with two kids.  The father is shot dead in front of  his house, and the mother, who is not terribly bright, has to raise the kids alone on a meagre salary.   It seems to me that if a community is rich enough to afford rehabilitation for the murderer that it is also has obligations to those individuals whose lives have been shattered by the failure to police the streets.

Rose-Ellen Caminer,

Our new technologies only monitor. They can aid verification that someone is complying with certain terms, but if someone strongly wants to commit a crime, the best it can do is tell us that they are not complying.

There also is an issue of deterance. While I don't believe life without parole or the death penalty have that much greater deterant effect than a twenty year sentence, going to prison is a big difference from house arrest.

One thing that seems to be missed by many commentors, or maybe its just assumed, is that wherever one stands on capital punishment, there is no question at all that in the United States one cannot torture someone to death.  That is what happened in this case. No matter what the crime, our Constitution outlaws torture as a form of punishment.   And the Governor acted disgracefully over-ruling the State Supreme Court.  this effort was esensially a "science experiement" where the state of Oklahoma had no idea whether its drug mixture would work or not.  A similar mixture had been used only 1 time before, but with a signifcantly higher dosage of the intial drug.  And the attempt to revive the prisoner, talk about barbaric. 

One final note on the life without parole argument.  At some point this can be a punishment without any effect.  In a community near me there is currently a large fight going on against a proposal by the state to open a facility for prisoners who are too elderly or too infirmed to remain in a regular prison.  A significant propotion of these cases involve people with dementia.  What, pray tell, is the value of keeping a sickly, demented elderly individual in prison other than to say we did it?  At some point it no longer serves any purpose, other than perhaps vengence. 


Another problem with drones, istm, is the impossibility of surrender. Some guy condemns you without judge, jury, separation of these roles, or any transparent legal process, and then one day you're walking down the street and are hit by a missile. In addition to the substantial "collateral damage," (dead innocents,) there's no way you can put your hands up and be taken prisoner. Sometimes this is true in war, (bombing raids, e.g.,) but generally if a person surrenders they must be taken prisoner, not killed.

So if the Taliban gets hold of a drone, and sends it to destroy a drone operator's shack in Arizona or wherever, taking out a few civilians on the side, will we consider that just and legal? 


In case anyone might be interested in what the codemned man did, see


But be warned:  It is grusome in the extreme.


are you suggesting that horror at the man's crimes may have caused the executioners to torture him on purpose?

Then they should be sued.

Bob Schwatz,

It is well established that Lockett was a bad guy and deserving of punishment.  But torture has never been part of our tradition no matter what the person had done.  Over our history a number of very bad people have been sentenced to death and never, ever has torture been acceptable.  One can dispute whether capital punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, but not whether the state is permitted to torture a criminal before or during the carrying out of the sentence.  It is simply not allowed. 

Bob, like I said, the crimes were exceptionally cruel.  It's hard even to read about them let alone look at graphic evidence.  But endorsing or even requiring the same level of cruelty in return just lowers our moral authority to impose punishment of any kind.  It's also extremely bad for the people imposing the penalty, because while it might be emotionally satisfying to sit here typing about how this guy deserved what he got, normal people, good people, would be traumatized at the thought that they had actually inflicted this kind of torment. That's what makes them good and normal, and not cruel or unusual.  Even executioners in the middle ages used to ask their victims for forgiveness. 

Torture is wrong not only because of what it does to the victim but because of what it does to the torturer.  Animals kill quickly, while a torturer, drawing agony out, reduces himself to something even less than a beastl. 

Hi - I know this thread has been dormant for a while, and the topic has fallen off the first page of dotCom, but I saw this article and want to refer it to anyone who may still be checking.  It appeared at  Headline: "Death penalty in America: How the push to abolish capital punishment has made lethal injection less safe."