30 Apr 2014

Why did US death penalty drug cocktail fail in Oklahoma?

A new death penalty cocktail is being blamed for botching the execution of a US inmate in Oklahoma – but why is the US executing their criminals with new chemicals?

Clayton Lockett, 38, was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the first of the Oklahoma‘s new three-drug lethal injection combination was administered.

Three minutes later, though, he began breathing heavily, writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow.

The blinds were eventually lowered to prevent those in the viewing gallery from watching what was happening in the death chamber, and the state’s top prison official called a halt to the proceedings. Lockett died of a heart attack a short time later, officials said.

‘Tortured to death’

State corrections department spokesman Jerry Massie said: “We believe that a vein was blown and the drugs weren’t working as they were designed to. The director ordered a halt to the execution.”

The troubled execution is expected to have national implications, with lawyers for death row inmates arguing that new lethal injection cocktails used in Oklahoma and other states could cause undue suffering and violate constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

After weeks refusing to disclose basic information about the drugs used, Clayton Lockett was tortured to death – Attorney Madeline Cohen

Oklahoma had set up a new lethal injection procedure and cocktail of chemicals earlier this year after it was no longer able to obtain the drugs it had once used for executions.

“After weeks of Oklahoma refusing to disclose basic information about the drugs for tonight’s lethal injection procedures, tonight Clayton Lockett was tortured to death,” said Madeline Cohen, an attorney for Warner.

Oklahoma and other states have been scrambling to find new suppliers and chemical combinations after drug makers, mostly in Europe, imposed sales bans because they objected to having medications made for other purposes being used in lethal injections.

EU embargo

The Eu blocked importation of lethal injection technology into the United States in 2011. Before the embargo virtually every US state used the same three-drug method. A first drug, sodium thiopental, anesthetized the inmate.
Then a second drug, pancuronium bromide, paralyzed them and halted his or her breathing. Finally, an injection of potassium chloride stopped the heart.
Of the three drugs used potassium chloride and pancuronium bromide are widely available in the US. But sodium thiopental has been superseded by newer anaesthetics and only a few manufacturers produce it worldwide - it also has a shelf life of about four years.
The European Union makes no secret of its death-penalty stance. EU guidelines call for its "universal abolition" and declare that doing so would "[contribute] to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights."

Source: The Atlantic

“This could be a real turning point in the whole debate as people get disgusted by this sort of thing,” said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Centre, which monitors capital punishment.

“This might lead to a halt in executions until states can prove they can do it without problems. Someone was killed tonight by incompetence,” Mr Dieter said.

Witness Ziva Branstetter told broadcaster MSNBC Lockett was thrashing about and appeared to be in pain.

“His body was sort of bucking. He was clenching his jaw. Several times he mumbled phrases that were largely unintelligible,” she said.

‘Potassium chloride’

Attorneys for death row inmates have argued that the drugs used in Oklahoma and other states could cause unnecessarily painful deaths, which would amount to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the US Constitution.

Oklahoma uses three drugs in its new lethal injection mixture, which consists of midazolam to cause unconsciousness, vecuronium bromide to stop respiration and potassium chloride to stop the heart, the Department of Corrections said.

Read more: 48 years on death row: Japanese man finally released

In order to obtain drugs used for execution, Oklahoma and other states have turned to compounding pharmacies, which are lightly regulated agencies that combine chemicals for medical purposes.

Lawyers for death row inmates have argued there may be problems with purity and potency of the chemicals that come from these compounding pharmacies, raising questions about whether they should be used to prepare lethal injection drugs.

Lockett, 38, was convicted of first-degree murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery for a 1999 crime spree with two co-defendants. He was found to have shot teenager Stephanie Nieman and buried her alive in a shallow grave where she eventually died.