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Bungled execution in U.S. prison spurs capital punishment debate

Oklahoma's grotesquely botched execution of Clayton Lockett – who buried a teenage girl alive in 1999 – has reignited the emotional and divisive debate about the death penalty across the United States, the last Western nation to kill convicts.

Mr. Lockett, convicted of kidnapping, rape and murder, spent more than a decade on death row. On Tuesday, he was the human guinea pig for a new lethal cocktail of poisons ordered up by Oklahoma after its former supplier opted out of providing drugs for executions for fear of backlash.

The new mix either failed or was wrongly administered. Strapped to a gurney, the 38-year-old Mr. Lockett writhed and moaned. Seven minutes after the injection of poison that was supposed to first render him unconscious, then kill him, Mr. Lockett raised his head and mumbled, "Something is wrong."

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Witness Ziva Branstetter said: "His body was sort of bucking. He was clenching his jaw. Several times he mumbled phrases." Then prison officials closed the blinds to the witness room and a doctor called off the execution. That didn't work either. The murderer suffered a massive heart attack and died 40 minutes later.

"People convicted of crimes should not be test subjects for a state's grisly experiments," Antonio Ginatta, the U.S. advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said Wednesday. "Last night's botched execution was nothing less than state-sanctioned torture."

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said: "This could be a real turning point in the whole debate as people get disgusted by this."

Rights groups, including Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union, have long fought to end capital punishment in the United States, but a 60-per-cent majority still backs executions. That's the lowest level since 1972 and well off the 80-per-cent support peak in the mid-1990s.

According to Gallup, "the current era of lower support may be tied to death-penalty moratoriums in several states beginning around 2000 after several death-row inmates were later proven innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted."

More recently, since 2006, six states have repealed death-penalty laws outright. (Canada abolished capital punishment in 1976 but 63 per cent of Canadians told an Angus Reid poll last year they want it back.)

In the U.S., support is strongest among older, white and Republican Americans, and lowest among young minorities.

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Even as the number of executions has dramatically declined, along with public support for the death penalty, the United States still ranks fifth among nations where the death penalty is used. China executes thousands annually, although the exact number is a state secret. Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia follow, then the United States.

Somalia, Sudan and Yemen were the only other countries with more than 10 executions in 2013.

"Those states who cling to the death penalty are on the wrong side of history and are, in fact, growing more and more isolated," said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's secretary general.

Thirty-nine men – almost all death-row inmates in the U.S. are male and more than 40 per cent are African American – were executed across the country last year. In 2014 so far, 20 executions have been carried out in five states: Texas, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma and Ohio.

Most executions are state affairs but the federal government also maintains a death row and some of the accused terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay could face execution if convicted.

While death-penalty abolitionists get considerable attention – and a failed execution like Oklahoma's creates a media furor – families of the victims are heard less often.

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Among them are the parents of teenager, Stephanie Neiman, Mr. Lockett's victim. According to trial records, he buried her alive after shooting her because she refused to promise not to call police.

"Every day, we are left with horrific images of what the last hours of Stephanie's life was like," her parents told the court in an impact statement. They wanted Mr. Lockett dead. "Anything less is a travesty of justice," they said.

In the wake of the horrific failure to carry out that sentence, Governor Mary Fallin ordered "a full review of Oklahoma's execution procedures to determine what happened and why."

The first to benefit was Charles Warner, originally scheduled to be executed two hours after Mr. Lockett, for the rape and murder, nearly two decades ago, of an 11-month-old baby. Mr. Warner, 46, was given a 14-day stay of execution.

Oklahoma is among 32 U.S. states that still impose the death penalty, but nearly half of those haven't executed anyone for years.

The U.S. Constitution outlaws cruel and unusual punishment and the Supreme Court – while ruling executions are lawful – has been whittling back on those who can be put to death. In 2005, capital punishment for juveniles was ruled unconstitutional.

More and more states are outlawing executions – six in the past six years – amid growing evidence of wrongful convictions, as well as the staggering costs of maintaining death rows where condemned prisoners often linger for decades during seemingly endless appeals and ebbing public support for capital punishment.

Still, more than 3,000 remain on death row. As "exoneration" efforts have gained support – with and without the use of DNA testing – estimates have also grown of the number on inmates on death row who may have been wrongfully convicted.

Last month, Glenn Ford, who spent more than 30 years on Louisiana's death row, became the 144th U.S. inmate set free since 1973 after evidence emerged that his conviction was unjust. Mr. Ford, an African American, was convicted by an all-white jury on testimony fabricated by police and an "expert" witness who never actually examined the body.

"This case painfully reveals the fallibility of the death penalty and the risks we take with every death sentence," said Mr. Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center.

States still executing are also finding it harder to get some of the required drugs as manufacturers, fearing backlash, refuse to make them available.

Tuesday's botched execution was Oklahoma's first attempt using a multidrug, multiple-injection sequence apparently prepared by a compounding pharmacy, a small specialty firm that mixes up drugs to special order.

"After weeks of Oklahoma refusing to disclose basic information about the drugs for [its new] lethal-injection procedures, tonight Clayton Lockett was tortured to death," said Madeline Cohen, one of the public defenders who sought stays for both men due to be executed Tuesday.

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