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Arkansas Is About to Repeat My State’s Gruesome Mistakes

Ryan Kiesel,
Executive Director,
ACLU of Oklahoma
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April 14, 2017

UPDATE: On Friday, April 14, 2017, a state circuit court entered a temporary stay of the scheduled executions and set additional hearings for Tuesday, April 18.

Almost three years ago, Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner were scheduled for execution in Oklahoma on the same night. You might remember that it didn’t go well. Of the two, only Lockett was killed that evening, and the manner of his death — the 43-minutes of torture — still haunts us. Our state government spent many months on investigations and lawsuits stemming from its cruelty.

Now across our eastern border, we see a governor planning seven executions with the same recipe: a failed drug called midazolam, an accelerated schedule of two executions a day, and a complex procedure involving multiple drugs that really shouldn’t be rushed. Over here in Oklahoma, we’ve lived Arkansas’s future, and we don’t recommend it.

Gov. Hutchinson’s goal is to use his supply of midazolam before it expires on April 30. This drug is unfit for executions because it can’t reliably put someone into a steady, deep, coma-like sleep — a state necessary to prevent the severe pain that comes with the drugs injected later. We know this firsthand in Oklahoma.

On April 29, 2014, our state corrections staff gave midazolam to Clayton Lockett. When they thought he had lost consciousness, they administered the drugs that cause extraordinary pain. Just three minutes after declaring him unconscious, corrections staff saw Lockett begin to move under the gurney’s straps. He clenched his teeth. He writhed, and he talked.

Midazolam wasn’t the only problem that night. Corrections staff took 51 minutes and at least 16 tries to insert Lockett’s IV, before finally placing it in Lockett’s groin. The line became dislodged at some point in the execution. We don’t know when because the supervising doctor noticed only after Lockett was visibly struggling. At that point, the doctor ordered staff to draw the curtain, blocking the witnesses’ view of the execution. He tried to push the IV back in but punctured Lockett’s artery instead. It was “a bloody mess,” in the words of the warden.

Prison officials frantically called the governor’s general counsel, and the head of the Department of Corrections eventually stopped the execution. Lockett died ten minutes later. Because Lockett’s execution was so terribly botched, the Department of Corrections postponed Charles Warner’s execution. He was executed more than a year later.

Our state’s Department of Public Safety concluded that the staff’s errors came from the stress of trying to pull off two executions in one night. As a result, we now separate executions by at least a week. Gov. Hutchinson’s plan for Arkansas — lethal injection for seven people in ten days, at a rate of two per day — seems doomed for failure and scandal.

In Oklahoma, the botched execution of Clayton Lockett consumed our government and our courts for more than a year. We had internal reviews, external investigations, reports, lawsuits, and more — all because our governor had gone ahead with a risky plan for putting someone to death. She gambled with torture, and she lost. Big.

Even before Lockett and Warner’s scheduled execution date, our governor knew that midazolam was unreliable in lethal injection. Four months earlier, Dennis McGuire’s execution in Ohio took far longer than it should have. He gasped, snorted, and choked throughout. The evidence against midazolam since then has only grown, with the botched executions of Joseph Wood in Arizona the same year as Lockett’s and of Roland Smith Jr. in Alabama this past December.

Arkansas can avoid the disaster ahead. Gov. Hutchinson should call off his plan for seven executions by lethal injection and let his midazolam expire.

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