Oklahoma State Penitentiary, McAlester, Oklahoma, site of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett

When Oklahoma horrifically botched the execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29, many were left to wonder just how an execution could go so terribly wrong. A new Tulsa Worldinvestigation suggests that Oklahoma’s risky, flawed lethal injection procedures are at least partially to blame.

The deficiencies of Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedures revealed in the investigation were numerous and troubling. Here are just some of the problems unearthed by the World staff:

There’s no regular training required of Oklahoma’s execution team. None. Zilch. And while Oklahoma had either a phlebotomist or EMT professional present during Lockett’s execution (the state has claimed both at different times), placement of an IV in a person’s femoral vein (as was done in Lockett’s botched execution) requires a level of skill that phlebotomists and similar medical assistants lack. Unsurprisingly, the World’s investigation revealed that improperly placed IVs may have played a role in several other botched executions in Oklahoma. This was also in the preliminary findings of an independent autopsy.

Oklahoma also doesn’t have a backup plan if their execution drugs don’t work. There’s no language in Oklahoma’s execution protocol on what to do if something goes wrong, and the state doesn’t bring backup drugs in case the first drugs administered do not work as planned.

Oklahoma’s execution protocol was created with no expert input. The protocol offers five different problematic, experimental lethal injection methods for executions, but midazolam, which was used in Lockett’s botched execution, is not an appropriate anesthetic agent for executions because it is not commonly used to induce anesthesia in clinical practice and does not relieve pain. The FDA has not approved midazolam for induction of anesthesia, and since the second drug administered after midazolam is a paralytic, witnesses to the execution have no way of knowing if the pain-relieving first drug worked as planned, meaning there are potentially even more botched executions we don’t know about.

The state rarely conducts autopsies to determine whether prisoners were adequately anesthetized when the painful execution drugs were administered. Oklahoma conducted autopsies on less than half of death row prisoners executed since 1990, yet where data was available, more than thirty prisoners “had levels of anesthetic in their blood below what experts say might be necessary to produce sufficient anesthesia.” Because of this lack of complete autopsy data, we have no idea just how ineffective their drug protocol is. As one expert said, “I don’t understand how anyone could come to the conclusion that [Oklahoma’s drug protocol] meets the constitutional test.”

Unfortunately, all of this occurs behind the veil of secrecy that surrounds Oklahoma executions, due to a law that was passed quietly by the state legislature in 2011 after virtually no debate.

On Wednesday, twenty-one Oklahoma death row prisoners filed a federal lawsuit against state officials charging that Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol creates an unconstitutional, substantial risk of  inhumane execution. And from the Tulsa World’s investigation, it’s clear that serious revisions need to occur to the state’s protocol before further executions take place.

Photo by Charles Duggar under Creative Commons license