The death penalty is a highly controversial subject. Crimes punishable by death in the English American colonies included adultery, rape, blasphemy, manslaughter, rebellion, bestiality and poisoning. The first execution on record in America was in 1608 in the colony of Virginia. Since then, the laws have softened considerably.
The death penalty was first attacked as cruel in the mid 1800’s. Executions went from public spectacles to private hangings in several states. Michigan abolished it in 1846, with the exclusion of treason against the state, followed by Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Wisconsin followed suit after a botched hanging, when a man struggled at the end of a rope for five minutes, and wasn’t declared dead for an additional fifteen minutes.
In 1972 the US Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment was cruel and unusual as it was used at the time, and ended the practice in the United States. Three years later thirty states had passed new death penalty laws and close to 200 prisoners were on death row.
Today 31 states have the death penalty. Most use legal injection. However, it is technically still legal to hang people in Delaware and Washington or to use a gas chamber is Arizona, California, Missouri and Wyoming.
The states of Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia are the only places in the world that reserve the electric chair as a viable option for execution. Both Arkansas and Oklahoma law allow for the electric chair to be used to execute prisoners if lethal injection is at any point deemed unconstitutional.
According to CNN, between 1900 and 2011 roughly three percent of US executions were botched. This number is expected to be higher when looking at lethal injections exclusively.
Another study cited by CNN reported that 21 of 40 executed prisoners “had anesthesia levels consistent with consciousness” during their executions.
Oklahoma has the second largest number of executed convicts in the country, plus the highest number per capita. Oklahoma was the first state to adopt lethal injection, though not the first to use it.
The state has executed 194 people: 82 by electrocution, one by hanging and 111 by lethal injection.
There have been some problems with lethal injection, however. The most famous instance occurred in 2014, when Clayton Darrell Lockett experienced a botched execution that resulted in all executions being put on hold until protocols were improved.
Lethal injection in Oklahoma is a three drug cocktail. The first renders the person unconscious, the second paralyzes them, and the third drug stops the heart. It has been asked why the paralysis drug is needed, and suggested by some anti-execution advocates that it is used to create the illusion of a painless execution. If a prisoner cannot speak, they cannot report if they are in pain.
In Lockett’s case, he was neither unconscious nor paralyzed. A blown vein prevented the drugs from being administered properly, resulting in a 43 minute-long execution during which Lockett convulsed and tried to speak.
The paramedic who participated in Lockett’s execution had never used midazolam, the untested drug chosen for his execution. The equipment provided was incorrect; the IV tubing was of the wrong type, the saline was not packed in syringes.
The IV was stuck into Lockett’s arm multiple times, his foot multiple times, his neck and his chest. They wanted to try inserting it in his groin, but could not find a long enough needle. An hour after they first began they decided they had a working IV; an IV that dislodged during the execution. This resulted in a smaller dose of anesthetic making it into Lockett’s bloodstream.
Reporter Katie Fretland witnessed Lockett’s execution as a part of her investigation into Oklahoma’s use of the death penalty. She had found record of another instance where a prisoner died from an overdose of the anesthetic and the executioners hid the two other drugs by injecting them into his corpse. There was also a case that occurred shortly before Lockett’s, where prisoner Michael Lee Wilson said “I feel my whole body burning,” during his execution.
Locket had known his execution would take place with untested drugs, as no company was willing to sell the preferred drug to use in executions.
Locket’s stepmother told him, “Do me one favor, as long as you can talk on that gurney, talk. Let the world know how they are executing people here in Oklahoma.”
Lockett did try to speak during his execution, as per his stepmother’s request, since he was not unconscious during the execution and appeared to be in agony. His words were incoherent. At one point the blinds were drawn, preventing journalists from witnessing the botched execution.
Difficulties with acquiring the drugs needed for lethal injections are common. Many companies refuse to sell these drugs to state officials, forcing them to rely on distant and sometimes unreliable compounding pharmacies.
These drugs are mostly unregulated and—as Fretland discovered—are purchased with petty cash.
Fretland said her investigation “raises questions about how seriously Oklahoma officials take the death penalty.”
The most recent problem happened on January 16 of this year. Charles Warner was accidently executed with potassium acetate, not the mandated potassium chloride. As a result, all executions in the state of Oklahoma have been temporarily halted.