Clayton Lockett wouldn’t do what he was supposed to do. He wouldn’t die.
For 43 minutes in April, the convicted murderer lay on a gurney inside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s execution chamber, lethal drugs running through his body but his heart still beating. His feet kicked, his teeth clenched, he mumbled incoherently. More than half an hour in, the execution was finally called off by the director of Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections. Mr. Lockett died anyway 10 minutes later of a heart attack, according to corrections officials.
On Wednesday, it happened again. Witnesses said Joseph Wood, a convicted double murderer, continued to gasp and struggle to breathe after Arizona prison officials injected him with a cocktail of drugs to kill him. He did not die until nearly two hours had passed, and not before his alarmed lawyers pleaded with a federal judge to stop the “cruel and unusual punishment” and revive Mr. Wood.
A string of high-profile botched executions has drawn widespread criticism from U.S. President Barack Obama and other elected officials, horrified human-rights groups and prompted several states to temporarily halt planned executions. After Mr. Wood’s execution, Amnesty International researcher encapsulated the controversy. “How many more times do officials need to be reminded of the myth of the ‘humane execution’ before they give up on their experiment with judicial killing?” he asked.
Since the first American was put to death using the lethal-injection method in 1982, it has become the standard means of capital punishment in the United States. But a number of botched executions this year – including at least two in Oklahoma and one in Ohio – have put the practice, as well as the death penalty itself, under intense scrutiny.
The picture that has emerged, after myriad court challenges and cases similar to that of Mr. Lockett, is of an execution system plagued by intense secrecy and a lack of standard protocol. Both Mr. Lockett and Mr. Wood had demanded to know the mix of drugs that the states would use to execute them, arguing unsuccessfully in court that keeping the information secret violated their constitutional rights.
But beyond institutional problems, a growing number of drug companies within the United States and around the world are refusing to make or sell to corrections officials any drug that may be used for execution. As such, a severe shortage of the basic drugs necessary to carry out lethal injections has forced some states to improvise with untested chemicals, sometimes with horrific results.
“This has been going on for 32 years,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University and one of the country’s leading experts on the death penalty. “Things have gotten worse now than they ever have been. We’re seeing a pattern of devastating executions where people have suffered.”
The United States is one of the very few developed nations in the world that still employs the death penalty, and that position has led to one of the thorniest legal and political showdowns in the country today – one that pits constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment against a state’s right to use the most extreme form of punishment on those convicted of the most extreme crimes.
The modern history of the death penalty in the U.S. began in 1976, with a series of Supreme Court decisions that essentially came to the conclusion that several states’ newly revised death-penalty guidelines did not violate the Eight Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Since then, roughly 1,400 people have been executed in the United States by hanging, electrocution, lethal gas and firing squads. But by far the most popular method, accounting for a little less than 90 per cent of executions, is lethal injection.
As with most contentious national issues in the United States, the norms of lethal injection vary wildly from state to state.
Thirty-two states now authorize the death penalty, as do the federal government and the military. Most states that use lethal injection tend to use a cocktail of drugs to kill condemned prisoners – for example the anesthetic sodium thiopental, followed by the muscle relaxant pancuronium bromide, and finally potassium chloride, which stops the heart.
Other states, such as Missouri, have attempted to use a single drug, the popular anesthetic propofol. (Missouri halted a planned propofol execution last year after concerns that Europe, which supplies the vast majority of the drug to U.S. hospitals, would halt imports if the drug was used to kill.) Some states have complex dosage guidelines taking into consideration, for example, the prisoner’s size and weight. Others use the same dosage across the board, potentially increasing the likelihood of a botched execution.