Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin didn’t just support the execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett. She wanted it, and she took every step possible to hasten the process. When the state Supreme Court issued a stay of execution so it could evaluate the state’s opaque guidelines governing lethal injection, Fallin defied the decision with an order to continue, relying on threats—her Republican allies in the state Senate introduced impeachment resolutions against the offending justices—to strong-arm the court into backing down.
The execution was a disaster. Lockett lived for 43 minutes after the initial injection, the first in an untried three-drug cocktail. Witnesses say he said the words “oh, man” and “I’m not,” while a prison official said, “Something’s wrong,” before Lockett convulsed and officials closed the blinds. The execution process was eventually halted, but not before Lockett died of a heart attack.
It was a horrifying display—a cruel and unusual execution that wouldn’t have happened without Fallin’s intervention. But rather than take responsibility for the mistake, the Oklahoma governor has lashed out, attacking critics for ignoring Lockett’s crimes and making this an issue of tribal loyalty, not competence.
“What these out-of-state pundits consistently forget to mention or even consider,” writes Fallin in a column published on Monday, “are Lockett’s victims.” After describing the crimes (robbery, kidnapping, sexual assault, murder) and the victims, she concludes, “The people of Oklahoma do not have blood on their hands. They saw Clayton Lockett for what he was: evil. His execution means he will never again harm or terrorize another person.”
But this is beside the point. No one disputes that Lockett was a despicable man who committed monstrous crimes. The problem is with the process that led to his execution. The events leading up to Lockett’s death were an unprecedented display of judicial coercion from the executive and legislative branches of Oklahoma. Remember, this process began when a state judge declared unconstitutional a law that blocked public knowledge of the drugs used in lethal injections. The judge’s reasoning—that denying the information limits access to the court and risks a violation of the Eighth Amendment—was borne out by previous executions in the state. When inmate Michael Lee Wilson was executed in January, he reportedly said, “I feel my whole body burning,” an event similar to Lockett’s murmurs and spasms during his execution.
But Fallin and her allies rejected this judicial decision. After the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals said it had no jurisdiction in the matter, the state Supreme Court stepped in to stay the execution. At this point, the Court of Criminal Appeals criticized the state Supreme Court for intruding on its territory, and Fallin refused to recognize the order altogether, saying that the court’s “attempted stay of execution is outside the constitutional authority of that body” and that she “cannot give effect to the order.”
At best, Fallin’s action was an improper approach to a delicate problem. At worst, it violated the state’s separation of powers and set a dangerous precedent for future controversies. And Fallin is poised to get away with it. Yes, she’s commissioned a review of the execution, but it’s being conducted by the Department of Public Safety, which is led by a former employee of the governor—Michael Thompson, who worked at the Department of Corrections—who was also at the Lockett execution.
Of course, the core issue at stake—what to do about the death penalty—goes beyond Fallin’s grisly enthusiasm for the punishment. Lockett’s execution wasn’t the first botched lethal injection, and it won’t be the last. For nearly a year, the United States has faced a shortage of drugs used in executions, and in response, states have turned to new drugs and formulas. A dwindling number of doctors want to participate in the practice, and a growing number of officials administering lethal injections are untrained and incompetent. In Lockett’s case, for instance, prison staff failed to insert the IV into the proper artery, injecting drugs into his soft tissue and leaving him in terrible pain.
Americans want clean, medical executions, but it’s far from clear that these easy, painless deaths are possible. There’s no doubt that Lockett was a terrible criminal—he buried his victim alive—but do we want a world where his torturous death is the norm? And if the evidence says we already live in that world—lethal injections have gone wrong in states across the country—are we OK with it?
Indeed, of the thousands of men and women who sit on death row in the United States, how many more will die like Lockett? And while we know he was the worst of the worst, we also know that capital punishment is saturated with racial bias, most likely to fall on those with the least resources, and has claimed the lives of innocent people.
Some people may deserve to die, and sometimes the system gets it right. But there are no guarantees, and for every person who is “rightfully” executed, how many are victims of our broken system? And do we care, or, like Gov. Fallin, are we content to say that—regardless of the circumstances—“Justice was served”?