The so-called "botched" execution wasn't invented here in Oklahoma, not by any means:

It is a matter of historical record that executions are quite often botched. [Clayton] Lockett's may seem particularly grotesque at the moment, but today's horror simply obscures the fact that we've been here before. Lethal injection, in fact, was brought in to make the process feel more palatable to supporters of the death penalty, more clinical and under control. Hangings occasionally resulted in either decapitation or slow strangulation. Criminals put in the electric chair had an inconvenient way of smoking, or outright catching on fire. Gas chambers sometimes resulted in cases like that of Jimmy Lee Gray, who died in 1983 while audibly moaning and banging his head against a pole in the chamber.

The turn to drugs hoped to make things less obviously gruesome. It has never, not completely, worked out that way. Raymond Landry, executed in 1988, also spent more than 40 minutes on the gurney groaning before he died; the catheter had popped out. John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer, saw his execution halted when the drugs unexpectedly solidified in the tubes delivering them.

Exactly what is meant by "botched," anyway? Dr Austin Sarat of Amherst College defines a "botched" execution as one in which the executioners departed from official legal protocol or standard operating procedure, the result being a painful and/or prolonged death.

Certainly Clayton Lockett's forced separation from this mortal coil meets Sarat's definition. Sodium thiopental, the injectable drug of choice, was no longer available to the state: the one US manufacturer had discontinued the product, and the European Union bars export of it for use in executions. So Lockett got a cocktail of midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride; it's KCl that does the actual stopping of the heart, while the other two drugs are intended to reduce the side effects. This conglomeration had reportedly worked once before, in Florida, though the Sunshine State used five times the amount of midazolam that Oklahoma did.

Midazolam, as it happens, is one drug with which I have personal experience, sort of: under the trade name Versed, it was administered to me, in some quantity of which I am not aware, at the beginning of a colonoscopy. I don't recall much about the procedure, except that the stuff knocked me out pretty solidly in less than a couple of minutes, and I did not stir until well after the procedure was completed.

Lockett wasn't so lucky. After half an hour, he was still writhing; a heart attack finally finished him off. An independent autopsy by counsel suggested that the execution crew had not placed the IV properly.

That was April 2014. In January of 2015, Charles Warner was executed at McAlester without apparent incident, though it was discovered after the fact that the crew had administered potassium acetate rather than potassium chloride. This Keystone Kops-level drug management led Attorney General Scott Pruitt to ask for an indefinite stay on all executions until such time as these matters could be resolved — one day after Richard Glossip, who had already been served his ceremonial Last Meal, had had his execution stayed once Governor Fallin learned that potassium acetate had somehow found its way into the formula again.

If I didn't know better — and technically, I don't — I'd think that this might be a deliberate effort by elements within the Department of Corrections to get the death penalty shut down in this state. Still, Hanlon's razor suggests that the problem is more likely incompetence than conspiracy. Replacing the (non)conspirators might be a solution, but I suspect it's more likely that one of two things happens: a change to the the state Constitution to adopt the firing squad, the least problematic method of execution according to Dr Sarat's research, or giving up on the death penalty entirely. Which of the two depends, mostly, on how long this circus goes on.

The Vent

  17 October 2015

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