Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Will Oklahoma come to its senses?

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu May 1, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oklahoma botches first of two executions scheduled for Tuesday
  • John Sutter: The horrific scene won't change attitudes in the state
  • Sutter writes that some locals more or less celebrated the botched execution
  • The death penalty still has a "cold grip on Oklahoma," he writes

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- It's an unreal scene, like one from a horror film.

Here's how Tulsa World editor Ziva Branstetter described Oklahoma's botched execution on Tuesday of convicted killer Clayton Lockett:

6:28 p.m. Fifty milligrams of midazolam have been injected into each of Lockett's arms to start the process, an attempt to sedate him before the second and third drugs are administered to stop the breathing and the heart. Lockett has spent the past several minutes blinking and occasionally pursing his lips.

• ...6:37 p.m. The inmate's body starts writhing and bucking and it looks like he's trying to get up. Both arms are strapped down and several straps secure his body to the gurney. He utters another unintelligible statement. Defense Attorney Dean Sanderford is quietly crying in the observation area.

6:38 p.m. Lockett is grimacing, grunting and lifting his head and shoulders entirely up from the gurney. He begins rolling his head from side to side. He again mumbles something we can't understand, except for the word "man." He lifts his head and shoulders off the gurney several times, as if he's trying to sit up. He appears to be in pain.

Lethal Injection: The process

State officials reportedly were unsure how much of the second and third drugs that were supposed to kill Lockett were actually injected into his body.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

While the third was being administered, Lockett's vein "exploded," Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton told reporters.

He called the execution off. Then the inmate, Patton told the media, died of an apparent heart attack at 7:06 p.m.

Perhaps some supporters of the death penalty find comfort in the fact that death by lethal injection is supposed to be painless -- more sterile than a firing squad, more clinical than the electric chair. For those people, perhaps, Oklahoma's botched execution will be a wake-up call -- a realization that all executions, regardless of method, are cruel and not especially unusual in parts of the United States.

But in Oklahoma -- where both the firing squad and the chair are still statutory alternatives to the needle, if other methods were to be deemed unconstitutional by the courts -- method and morality don't seem to matter much.

This is the state -- the state where I grew up, by the way, and where I once worked as a newspaper reporter -- that has the highest per capita rate of executions in the country. Nationally, support for the death penalty has declined from a high of 80% in the 1990s to only 60% now, according to Gallup. States such as Connecticut, Maryland and New Mexico recently have abolished this abhorrent practice. It's unclear if public opinion in Oklahoma mirrors the national trend, statistically, but anecdotal evidence suggests the state supports, if not celebrates, state-sponsored death.

"Give them a bonus!" one commenter wrote on The Oklahoman's website, apparently referring to the executioner or state officials.

"I hope that man was in more pain than anyone ever imagined possible," a woman from Oklahoma wrote on Facebook, echoing a sentiment I saw repeated.

Not everyone reacted this way, to be sure. But an outsider could be forgiven for seeing politicians in the state who support these unethical policies as death-hungry and vengeful.

History would support that view as well.

It was Oklahoma, after all, in 1977, that was the first state to authorize death by lethal injection. That decision was made, in part, because Oklahoma was "facing the expensive prospect of fixing the state's broken electric chair," and lethal injections were cheaper, according to Human Rights Watch.

It was Oklahoma, in 1988, that lost an argument before the U.S. Supreme Court that it should be able to execute a man who was convicted of murder at age 15.

And it was Oklahoma, just this year, that executed a 38-year-old man, Michael Wilson, whose last words, just a moment before his death, were, "I feel my whole body burning."

Yet, the state proceeded with Lockett's execution this week. And it did so, according to The Guardian, using "dosages never before tried in American executions."

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin was forced to show some sense when she ordered a stay of a second execution -- of convicted child rapist and murderer Charles Warner -- that was scheduled to occur after Lockett's on Tuesday. That a state was going to execute two men in one night drew international curiosity and condemnation. It rattled some feathers in Oklahoma, as there were protesters at the Capitol. But the governor and many residents were unmoved.

No one would dispute that Lockett's crime was unthinkably heinous: He was convicted of shooting 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman before watching his accomplice bury her alive. But that doesn't excuse the state from ordering his death, especially in this way.

Both Lockett and Warner's sentences had been contested in court, with attorneys for the inmates arguing that the state cannot withhold the exact source of the drugs it planned to use for the executions. A political circus ensued, and the court, in the view of Andrew Cohen, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, "caved in to the political pressure."

Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Steven Taylor wrote, in agreement with the court, that Lockett and Warner had no right to know the source of the chemicals. "...(I)f they were being hanged, they would have no right to know whether it be cotton or nylon rope; or if they were being executed by firing squad, they would have no right to know whether it be by Winchester or Remington ammunition," he wrote, according to news reports.

States have been scrambling to come up with drugs they can use to kill people since some drug makers stopped selling them for such purposes.

Fallin has called for an investigation into the botched execution. As part of that, she should make the source of Oklahoma's drugs known.

But Oklahoma seems to be a place hell-bent on secrecy.

Near the end of the Tulsa World editor's journal of events, Ziva Branstetter writes that "blinds are lowered" and reporters were not allowed to see what happened in the final moments of Lockett's life. "Reporters exchange shocked glances," she wrote at 6:39 p.m. "Nothing like this has happened at an execution any of us has witnessed since 1990, when the state resumed executions using lethal injection."

Reporters were escorted to a white van outside the state penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma, which is commonly known as "Big Mac."

They were told to leave their state-issued pens, Branstetter wrote.

One could find hope in that moment -- could think that the state realizes that if witnesses saw what happened after the curtain fell, they would be shocked into action. That seems like a plausible explanation, but I still have my doubts.

The death penalty is on its way out in America.

But it's got a cold grip on Oklahoma.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT