OKLAHOMA CITY – After a grisly history of electrocutions, gassings, hangings and firing squads, it is the cold, quiet science of lethal injections that has become America’s most common and favored method of executing its worst criminals.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled six years ago that such injections did not violate the Constitution’s provisions against cruel and unusual punishment, clearing the way for states to administer the lethal cocktails under their own, sometimes secretive, protocols.
But a gruesome lethal injection gone wrong in Oklahoma has dealt death penalty supporters a potentially stunning setback this week, coming at a time when popular support for capital punishment has fallen and reliable lethal-injection chemicals are becoming harder to get.
Clayton Lockett’s unwieldy execution has triggered an already-controversial internal investigation and prompted calls for a lethal-injection moratorium across the U.S., with experts predicting the Supreme Court will face greater pressure to rule on whether states can refuse to tell inmates the makeup of the drugs used to end their lives.
“The public has a right to know how we are carrying out this very grave responsibility of the state,” said Oklahoma state Sen. Connie Johnson, one of several state lawmakers calling Wednesday for a yearlong moratorium on executions in the state. “This is the worst thing that the government does. This ought to be the most transparent.”
On Tuesday night, as witnesses watched from a prison viewing gallery in McAlester, executioners injected an experimental cocktail of lethal drugs into Lockett’s body. The 38-year-old murderer was supposed to fall asleep before the drugs stopped his heart.
Instead, according to officials, one of Lockett’s veins exploded, sending the inmate into a writhing, gasping fit that ended more than half an hour later with a fatal heart attack.
“We have a fundamental standard in this country that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “I think everyone would recognize that this case fell short of that standard.”
Legal analysts said the lack of public disclosure on the ingredients in lethal injections could provide a basis for new federal appeals.
“This is a very conservative Supreme Court, but after this, I can easily see them saying the states need to reveal more,” said Cornell University law professor John Blume, who directs a legal clinic that provides representation in death penalty cases.