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 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
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 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.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT