California Forum

Viewpoints: Another botched execution

The hideously botched execution of Oklahoma murderer Clayton Lockett last week brought back memories for me. Bad ones.

Just before Christmas in 2005, I was one of 17 journalists who witnessed California’s execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the notorious co-founder of the Crips street gang convicted of murdering four people with a shotgun.

The end of Williams’ life wasn’t as gruesome as the spectacle that unfolded at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on Tuesday. But it was far from a flawlessly synchronized demonstration of capital punishment. More on that later.

For now, let us consider Oklahoma, where, as most readers no doubt know, state officials had a little trouble in the death chamber as they sought to execute Lockett by lethal injection.

Lockett, 38, was Oklahoma’s first recipient of a new three-drug cocktail designed to stop an inmate’s heart. Death penalty states have begun using poorly tested combinations of drugs since the sole American manufacturer of one key ingredient stopped making it in 2011 and opposition to capital punishment in Europe began limiting access to supplies there.

But leading up to Lockett’s execution, Oklahoma officials vouched for their poison. And afterward, prison authorities blamed Tuesday’s macabre episode on “a vein failure” that prevented the drugs from streaming to their target and having the desired effect.

Witnesses in the viewing gallery put it somewhat less clinically. As Tulsa World reporter Lis Exon recounted:

“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. Lockett is grimacing, grunting and lifting his head and shoulders entirely up from the gurney … He appears to be in pain.”

Soon after that disturbing scene, authorities closed the blinds, and the onlookers saw no more. Ultimately, Lockett died from a massive heart attack, 43 minutes after the procedure began. A second execution scheduled that night was delayed 14 days to allow for an internal review.

Reading about the debacle in my morning Bee, I was transported back to San Quentin, California’s most fabled state prison, where I watched Williams die for his crimes.

Back then I was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, covering California’s correctional system. Executions represent our society’s most extreme punishment, and I believe reporters have a duty to be present, both to ensure accountability and – since no cameras are allowed – to share the scene with the outside world.

Williams’ case was unusual. A former gang thug turned anti-violence crusader, he had attracted a devoted international following, including Hollywood celebrities, clergy and others who urged that his life be spared.

But those appeals failed, and at 12:01 a.m. that December morning, Williams shuffled into San Quentin's mint-green death chamber, shackled at the wrists and waist.

At first, everything went as planned. At 12:03 a.m., two guards pulled on surgical gloves as another entered with injection supplies. At 12:05, a needle was thrust into Williams' right arm and connected to an intravenous tube.

So far so good, but the rules require a backup in case one tube fails, and that’s where the ritual of execution veered off course. For 12 minutes, a prison nurse poked repeatedly at Williams’ muscular left arm, searching for a vein.

The inmate winced in pain. And as the minutes ticked on, I shifted from foot to foot and felt slightly faint. At one point Williams lifted his head and appeared to say to the nurse, “Still can’t find it?”

Finally, the catheter found its mark. Then, the death warrant was read, an unseen hand behind the chamber’s steel walls unleashed the stream of lethal chemicals and Williams drew his last breath.

I vowed never to cover an execution again.

Retribution is a core principle of America’s correctional system, with capital punishment its ultimate expression. Some have suggested that the suffering Lockett experienced in his final minutes might have enhanced the sense of retributive satisfaction relatives of his victims gleaned from his death.

I’m not so sure.

In fact, by bungling his execution with a distressing but all too human display of ineptitude, Oklahoma has shifted the focus away from Lockett’s despicable acts and the victims he claimed.

When an execution goes badly awry, it inevitably makes the condemned the story. The victims, their suffering and the pain of their survivors recede further into the background.

So it goes in Oklahoma. Following Lockett’s death, the Tulsa World’s main article on the execution did not mention the victim, 19-year-old Stephanie Nieman, until the 32nd paragraph. Meanwhile, news outlets around the globe focused on the growing chorus of justifiably outraged critics calling for a moratorium on executions, an autopsy of Lockett and investigations to determine what went wrong. President Barack Obama’s spokesman weighed in too, noting, in classic political understatement, that the execution “fell short” of humane standards.

It all makes me think that when it comes to state-sponsored killings, we’ll never get it right.