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Documents Reveal 'Bloody Mess' at Botched Oklahoma Execution of Clayton Lockett

A lawsuit filed by another Oklahoma death row inmate details a grisly lethal injection process that lasted 43 minutes and made a mess, squirting blood all over a doctor.

by Alice Speri
Dec 15 2014, 7:35pm

Image via AP/ Oklahoma Department of Corrections

The execution of Clayton Lockett by lethal injection lasted 43 minutes and made a mess, squirting blood all over a doctor who inserted an additional needle into the inmate's groin as the drugs used to kill him failed to work.

The botched execution, which took place in April at an Oklahoma penitentiary, is described in grisly new detail in documents filed Friday as part of a civil lawsuit brought by lawyers for Charles Warner, another death row inmate scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma in January.

The lawsuit describes Lockett's botched execution — which reignited debate over the use of experimental drug cocktails in capital punishment — as "torture." 

"It was a bloody mess," prison warden Anita Trammell told investigators, according to court documents.

Oklahoma shows off its new execution chamber, just in time for world anti-death penalty day. Read more here.

Lockett was executed with an experimental combination of Midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. He was declared unconscious 10 minutes after the drugs were first administered, but reportedly groaned, moaned, lifted his head and shoulders, and said "man" as he lay dying. The execution was carried out behind blinds, beyond the sight of reporters and lawyers.

"I was kind of panicking," Trammell said. "Thinking oh my God. He's coming out of this. It's not working."

As the drug cocktail failed to kick in, the doctor carrying out the execution made a last-minute attempt to kill Lockett faster by inserting an intravenous line in his groin. But the needle struck an artery, squirting blood all over the doctor.

Friday's court filing includes witness testimonies and statements by doctors present at the execution. They reveal that Lockett was pricked at least 16 times as the doctor attempted to insert the IV, and that the doctor used the wrong type of needle for the job.

Lockett was "in some pain," Trammel said.

He "raised up a little bit a couple of times and the phlebotomist told him to take deep breaths, you know, kind of out loud," one witness, whose name was redacted in court documents, said.

"I said [redacted] 'You've hit the artery,'" a paramedic said, recalling his dialogue with the doctor. "'Well, it'll be alright [sic]. We'll go ahead and get the drugs' — 'No. We can't do that. It doesn't work that way' — and then, I wasn't telling him that — I mean, I wasn't trying to countermand his authority, but he was a little anxious… I don't think he realized that he hit the artery, and I remember saying, 'You've got the artery. We've got blood everywhere.'"

Oklahoma rep proposes new form of execution by nitrogen asphyxiation. Read more here.

A victim services advocate with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections who watched the execution from an overflow room said that a woman ran out of the execution chamber halfway through.

"It was like a horror movie," said Edith Shoals. "He kept trying to talk."

"These new details underscore that critical decisions were made during the IV insertion procedure—decisions which directly caused a botched lethal injection, and which occurred without any oversight from the press or public," Lee Rowland, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an email to VICE News. 

"The IV insertion is an integral portion of the lethal injection proceeding, and must be carried out within the bounds of law and policy," she added. "Meaningful oversight of the death penalty requires that the public has a full and truthful picture of the process, including the insertion of the IV that provides the lethal injection."

Robert Patton, the corrections director, eventually called off the execution 33 minutes after it started — but nobody attempted to reanimate or assist Lockett.

According to the court documents, Trammell asked the doctor if it would be possible to resuscitate Lockett, to which he responded that "he would have to take Lockett to the emergency room, but someone told (the doctor) that they could not do that."

Another witness describing the same exchange said Trammell asked "if they could bring him back to life," and said he thought the doctor "said no."

Trammell later admitted to investigators that they had no contingency plans in case "something goes south" with the execution. She also said that the doctor who got Lockett's blood all over his clothes said he hoped to get "enough money out of this to go buy a new jacket."

Lockett was convicted of murdering 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman in 1999. He shot her and buried her while she was still alive.

Warner was originally scheduled to be killed two hours after Lockett, but officials put his and other executions on hold after the gruesome incident, pending an investigation.

Ohio just doubled down on drug cocktail that tortured a death row inmate before killing him. Read more here.

Midazolam, used for sedative purposes, has failed to work in other executions, and some medical experts have said that just increasing the dosage — as some states have proposed — is no guarantee that the drug will work. Other botched executions this year included those of Dennis McGuire, who gasped for air for 25 minutes as he was put to death in Ohio, and Joseph Wood, whose execution in Arizona lasted almost two hours. 

Mike Oakley, the former general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, told the Guardian that he consulted colleagues in other states and the internet about the effectiveness of Midazolam. 

"I did have a discussion with our medical director at the time and he said, 'Yeah Midazolam probably when administered will, will render sedation,'" he said. "And that's all he would say. Then, you know, I did my own research, I looked online, you know. Went past the key Wiki leaks, Wiki leaks [sic] or whatever it is, and I did find out that, when administered, Midazolam would administer, would render a person unconscious. That's what we needed… So we thought it was okay."

Lawyers for other death row inmates claim Midazolam is unreliable and that using experimental drug cocktails amounts to illegal experimentation on humans.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that aims to educate the public about the practice, accused the state of "malpractice and gross negligence."

"The state was using a new drug combination, but refused to give important details about this experiment to those challenging the execution," he told VICE News. "When some Oklahoma judges hesitated about proceeding under such secrecy, they were quickly attacked as interfering and threatened with impeachment. In that climate, the execution had become a political battle, with the life and treatment of Mr. Lockett relegated to a very secondary position.

"Until the failings that led to this debacle are fully explored and clearly remedied, no more executions should take place," he added. "It is not enough to say the next execution will be done differently; confidence can only be restored by getting to the root causes of the problems and by making fundamental changes to ensure this violation of human dignity never happens again."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi