The Quality of Mercy in Oklahoma

Go to Oklahoma and you will find the quality of mercy is now strained. It withers in the rainless, nameless plains out west and finds no purchase in the Cross Timbers or the Red River Basin down south. Twice profaned in the name of justice, it is simultaneously invoked and slandered by imperiousness cloaked in Christian charity; blind to the surety that vengeance is twice cursed. It curses those who deliver vengeance and those who receive it and yet, since mercy is often the first casualty of righteous and self-seeking, elected officials often find it becomes them. A woman like Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin may discover she has no use for mercy, opting instead to clutch dearly to the forces of rancor and deception attendant to political success, dreaming of the day she might inspire the dread adoration of kings. Thus, when the power of clemency is placed in her hands, we know that she will not reach above the sceptered sway of the state and turn her cheek, opting instead to bury whatever’s left of her charity underneath that mountain of contempt that is enthroned in the hearts of queens and she will join the jailers and judges and juries in seasoning justice with loathing.

And so it was, that at 6:17 on the evening of April 29, 2014, medical personnel at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma were still looking for a fresh vein by which they could insert a catheter and pump a lethal dose of an untested 3-drug cocktail into Mr. Clayton D. Lockett. It had been 50 minutes since they had first strapped Lockett into his restraints and started fruitlessly searching for a suitable injection point; yet another setback in a day fraught with them. That morning, as the sun crept over the Appalachians on its way to the plains, an extraction team at the prison started the day off by tasing Mr. Lockett when he refused a verbal order to be restrained. Once he had been forcibly restrained, staff noticed that Lockett had a deep laceration into his right arm and took him to the prison’s medical facility where he could be treated and closely watched so that the inmate wouldn’t get the pleasure of killing himself before the state could do the honors for him.

oklahoma-executionA look at the execution chamber and viewing room at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, OK

After checking both of his arms, his legs, his feet and his neck for a vein sturdy enough to handle all of the poison that would be coursing through his person, the medical staff opted to stick the IV in the vicinity of his groin, making sure to place a sheet over him to shield the audience from the sight of his genitals as he was dying. Within 5 minutes, the blinds that covered the one-way glass standing between the small gallery of victim’s relatives, journalists and the like were pulled back and Mr. Lockett was asked if he would like to make a final statement, to which he responded in the negative. It was then that the prison warden gave the all clear to go ahead with the formal process of lethal injection, which was to take place in three parts. First, the prisoner was to be injected with a heavy dose of midazolam, a benzodiazepine used to sedate the inmate and render him unconscious. Once it was determined that Lockett had lost consciousness, the prison staff would introduce a second drug, vecuronium broimide, to stop his breathing and a third drug, potassium chloride, to stop his heart. If all went to plan, Lockett would be dead within 10 or 15 minutes, his last memory set within the fuzzy warmth of a sedative stupor before prior to blacking out. All did not go to plan.

In execution, it took just as long to render Mr. Lockett unconscious as it should have to complete the entire procedure. During a normal anesthetization with midazolam, it should take somewhere between 2-3 minutes to induce a deep sleep in a patient. On that April night in McAlester, 10 minutes passed between the administering of the sedative and the moment Mr. Lockett was declared unconscious. After spending the better part of an hour looking for a vein sturdy enough to withstand the injections of the drug cocktail and given the abnormally long time needed for anesthesia, the medical staff at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary should have known immediately that the drugs were not being properly distributed through Lockett’s bloodstream and the procedure should have been halted until better veins could be found. It was not halted and, within 3 minutes of being pronounced unconscious and receiving the injections of vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride, Lockett’s right leg kicked out, his head rolled to the side and he began mumbling incomprehensibly. A minute later, Lockett began “writhing and bucking” from underneath his restraints. His arms pinned to his side and his body tightly strapped to the gurney that had, in spirit if not in practice, held down 110 Oklahomans to die before him, Lockett tried in vain to rise up, but was only able to lift his head and shoulders, giving the assembled journalists and loved ones of the 18-year old woman he brutally assaulted, raped, shot and buried alive one last look at his suffering face.

Once he had been thrashing about for a couple of minutes and it became clear that something had gone horribly wrong, prison officials pulled the blinds back over the one way windows in the viewing area and, shortly after that, announced that they had officially stopped the execution due to what they termed a line failure. When asked by a reporter as to what exactly that meant, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton explained that, “his vein exploded.” This meant that, instead of being absorbed into his bloodstream and efficiently spread throughout his body, much of the lethal chemicals had instead seeped into the tissue around the ruptured vein or simply leaked out. Prison officials didn’t know how much of the chemicals had made been absorbed by Lockett, but it turned out to be enough to kill him, albeit belatedly. At 7:06 pm, 43 minutes after the execution had formally begun, Clayton D. Lockett was pronounced dead of a heart attack. By that point, Director Patton had issued a stay for the 2nd inmate in that day’s doubleheader, Charles Warner, whose execution has yet to be rescheduled.


It was the great George Bernard Shaw who once wrote that, to execute the criminal is to,“offer God as a sacrifice the gratification of our own revenge and the protection of our own lives without cost to ourselves.” Proponents of the death penalty here in America would certainly bristle at such a comment, countering that capital punishment represents the purest form of justice and the greatest criminal deterrent at our disposal. Of course, a study released this week showed that about 1 in every 25 death row inmates has been incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit and the abundance of research conducted on the matter over the years has failed to determine whether or not the death penalty is actually effective in deterring crime, but that won’t bother politicians like Mary Fallin because their policies are based on emotion rather than reason.

As Shaw so eloquently stated, capital punishment is a vindictive, rather than a constructive, practice. The United States of America is no safer today now that Clayton Lockett is dead than it was last week when he was languishing in a prison cell and the pain and suffering that Lockett went through as those poisons sapped the life from him does not ameliorate a moment of the suffering that Stephanie Neiman endured at his hands 15 years ago. To some families of victims, the execution can provide a sense of closure or finality to their ordeal, but to many others it causes further division and anguish. There is no research that states that the death penalty has any sort of therapeutic effect on the victim’s loved ones and anecdotal evidence concerning its efficacy can be found on both sides of the argument. And, beyond that, most death row prisoners have family of their own—whether it be parents, spouses, children or close relatives—who suffer tremendously through the lengthy process of exacting capital punishment on their kin.

It is worth noting that the reason why Oklahoma was experimenting with this new, untested combination of chemicals in Mr. Lockett’s execution is because basically every other country in the developed/first world has long since abandoned capital punishment as a barbaric and anachronistic practice that has no place in modern society. The chemicals that had traditionally been used in lethal injections here in America are all but impossible to get today because their domestic and international manufacturers refuse to have their product associated with executions. With the exception of Belarus, who executed 3 men by gunshot in 2012, every single member of the European Union has banned capital punishment and they have done so with support all across the ideological spectrum. When it comes to the death penalty, America has chosen to side with the likes of China, Iran and Sudan rather than Great Britain, Australia and France.

Oklahoma purports to be a very Christian state, with nearly 59 out of every 100 residents self-identifying as adherents of a Christian faith. As a matter of fact, Oklahoma is so Christian that it can claim the dubious distinction of being the first state to formally outlaw the Islamic practice of Sharia Law despite the fact that it wasn’t being practiced anywhere in Oklahoma and the state only had 15,000 Muslim residents. Now, I don’t pretend to be a devout Christian or a theologian, but in watching the acts committed by the state of Oklahoma over the past few days, a brief passage from First Timothy came to mind, in which the Apostle Paul wrote, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m having a hard time seeing how Christ can display patience and distribute mercy to the foremost sinner if he’s being pumped full of lethal chemicals.

Categories: Corrections/Prison News, Social Justice, US Politics

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