What it was like watching the botched Oklahoma execution


Nathaniel Batchelder, with the Oklahoma Coalition Against the Death Penalty, places a sign protesting the death penalty on Gov. Mary Fallin’s office at the state capitol on Tuesday. (Steve Gooch/the Oklahoman via AP)

A dozen people filed into a small room on Tuesday evening to watch Clayton Lockett die. They were media witnesses selected from a lottery, a dozen people chosen to observe the moment because there were only a dozen spots available and more than 12 reporters wanted to see this execution.

They arrived at a media center on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester and climbed into the white prison vans that carried them into the prison itself. They were intensely searched before being handed spiral stenographer’s notebooks and small, white Bic pens with blue caps. “You can’t bring anything with you, not even a watch,” Ziva Branstetter, one of the witnesses, said in an interview the following day. Afterward, when the execution was over and Lockett was dead, the witnesses would be told to tear out their notes and return the notebooks and the small, white pens with the blue caps.

Before Tuesday night, there had been 1,378 executions in the United States since 1976, almost all of them carried out using lethal injection. Lockett was set to become the 111th person killed in Oklahoma by lethal injection and the 20th person executed in the country so far this year. He was sentenced to die because in 2000, he was convicted of murder and a host of other charges after he and some accomplices attacked and sexually assaulted two teenage women, one of whom Lockett shot twice before she was buried alive, the other victims said.

On Tuesday, the witnesses were brought into a law library to wait, and while they were waiting they heard inmates banging on doors. Prison officials explained that this “is a sign of respect for the inmate to be executed,” Branstetter wrote later. “Not all inmates receive such a sendoff; it just depends on whether other inmates liked the condemned inmate.” After that, the witnesses were brought into a room with two rows of metal folding chairs. This room was actually the middle of the three rooms related to the execution. To one side, there was the execution chamber itself, which contained a gurney and the inmate; on the other side, there was a separate viewing room for the victim’s families. The victim’s families sat behind one-way glass behind the media representatives, who were in the middle of the tableau, so that the families could see over their shoulders and into the room where the inmate was supposed to die.

* * *

The death penalty is favored by a majority of Americans, a number that has dropped significantly. But the actual act of executing people occurs far away from the population and the public eye, in small rooms and guarded facilities and witnessed by only a handful of souls.

Attending an execution is an extraordinarily unusual event. Relatives of victims may attend. These relatives have different reasons for attending and they have different experiences, as described by Post reporter David Montgomery in a November 2009 report:

The same note of ambivalence is what you tend to hear from other victims’ relatives who’ve been there — watching with tragic eyes from behind the glass in the lonely little witness room, where all is not resolved. They feel better. A little. Not much. It’s not the better they thought they would feel. They can hardly explain why. They exit the room with most of the ache they carried in….

“It’s not like, ‘Whoopee!’ ” says Dale Alexander. “It’s not like a ballgame, we won, home run.” Her daughter, Lisa Alexander Crider, 23, the mother of a 5-year-old boy, was raped and shot in the face with a shotgun on the banks of the James River on Mother’s Day 1997. The killer, Brandon W. Hedrick, reportedly an acquaintance, was executed in the electric chair in 2006.

“It helped to see the completion,” Alexander says. “It helped to a degree.”

There is a concern that the ability to view the execution may “revictimize those families.” But there are also other people who attend, ordinary citizens who are willing to witness executions.

In Virginia, hundreds of people have volunteered to watch executions,  as this Post report from December 2006 shows:

They come from every corner and every quarter: A Richmond school bus driver, a South Hill bookkeeper, a Prince William County police officer, an Ashburn computer specialist, a Lynchburg brass works fabricator. All have visited the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt….

For nearly 100 years, broad public support for capital punishment has helped the Virginia Department of Corrections maintain a rotating list of about 20 to 30 volunteers, although only six are required to witness each execution. Some come only once. Others repeatedly return. One man, a paint store salesman from Emporia, has seen 15 men executed.

And there are the reporters. These media witnesses share the stories about executions with the public, documenting how this nation decides to put someone to death. These people attend largely for the same reason reporters go to war zones,  as former Post reporter (now editor) Josh White explains :

As a reporter, I believed – and continue to believe – that it is important for the public to bear witness to executions, as they are part of the justice system that we all, as members of this society, support. That’s not to say that everyone “supports” the death penalty, because certainly not everyone believes that we as a nation should kill as punishment. But it is the law of the land in many states, and many people believe it is a just punishment in extreme cases….

Being the eyes and ears for the public in such situations is what we do as journalists, trying to explain the world around us to those who can’t be there for themselves, whether it be the death chamber, the battlefield, in a foreign land, or in a sports arena.

* * *

On Tuesday, once the witnesses were brought in and seated, they waited. “You just sort of sit there, maybe talking very quietly to the person next to you, until the blinds rise,” Branstetter told The Post the day after the execution. Branstetter, the enterprise editor at the Tulsa World, spends part of her time reporting and part of her time managing a team. She has witnessed three executions in the past, most recently the January execution of Michael Wilson.

Her experience attending other executions is part of the reason she went to this one; Oklahoma was using a new lethal injection drug for the first time, and the secrecy surrounding the drugs had caused a protracted argument that extended to the state’s courts and lawmakers. Branstetter had been there in January when Michael Wilson was killed with a three-drug mix that had been obtained from a compounding pharmacy. Wilson’s final words, spoken after the injections: “I feel my whole body burning.” So she wanted to go to see what was different this time.

At the beginning, the only thing that was different was that the execution was late. At 6:23 p.m., 23 minutes after the execution had been scheduled to begin, the beige blinds lifted up and the witnesses in the next two rooms could see Lockett on the gurney. They didn’t know — because they couldn’t know — that the execution was delayed because a technician couldn’t find a place to insert the IV, according to Robert Patton, director of the Department of Corrections. That technician looked at Lockett’s arms, legs, feet and neck before ultimately placing the IV in Lockett’s groin area five minutes before the blinds were lifted, Patton wrote in a timeline sent to the governor. The area with the IV was covered by a sheet so that witnesses couldn’t see his groin, blocking their view of the vein where the needle was inserted.

After Lockett said he had no last words, the execution began. They administered the drug midazolam, which is meant to induce unconsciousness. Ten minutes later, they announced that he was unconscious. “This is the first execution I’ve covered that they’ve made a point of pronouncing someone unconscious before they pronounce him dead,” Branstetter said.

Three minutes later, “the violent reaction” began, she said. First, she saw his foot kick. Then his body bucked, he clenched his jaw and he began rolling his head from side to side, trying to lift his head up, grimacing and clenching his teeth. “He mumbled some things we didn’t understand,” Branstetter said. “The only thing I could make out was when he said ‘man.’”

It looked like he was trying to get up, she said.

“He looked like he was in pain to me,” Branstetter said. “How much pain, nobody knows but him.”

A prison official looked under the sheet and announced that they were going to close the blinds temporarily. The beige blinds went back down and never went back up. “Reporters exchange shocked glances,” Branstetter wrote in her account. “Nothing like this has happened at an execution any of us has witnessed since 1990, when the state resumed executions using lethal injection.”

Dean Sanderford, one of Lockett’s attorneys, called the execution “the most awful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Some of the younger reporters in attendance, who had not witnessed executions before, “were quite shaken, to say the least,” Branstetter said the following day.

“Nobody was crying, but…afterwards, there were some reporters whose hands were shaking, who were quite disturbed by what they had seen,” she said.

The reporters sat in silence for several minutes — the exact time wasn’t clear because the clock on the wall in the execution chamber was now hidden behind the blinds — before Patton announced to them that he has halted the execution.

“We’ve had a vein failure in which the chemicals did not make it into the offender,” he said.

In his timeline sent to the governor, Patton wrote that an examination of the IV found that “the blood vein had collapsed, and the drugs had either absorbed into tissue, leaked out or both.” Patton was told that there were no other veins available and that there hadn’t been enough drugs administered to kill Lockett, so the execution was called off at 6:56 p.m., he wrote.

Patton also issued a stay of execution for Charles Warner, who was set to be executed later that night. Warner was supposed to become the 112th person executed in Oklahoma using lethal injection and the 21st person executed in the country this year. He was convicted of raping and murdering an 11-month-old, the daughter of his girlfriend at the time. His execution has been delayed indefinitely, with Gov. Mary Fallin (R) saying that his execution would be on hold until after a review into Lockett’s execution was completed.

The reporters were told not long after the execution was called off that they had to leave. They walked back to the white vans, reporters comparing notes and tearing out their notes, before returning to the media center on the penitentiary’s grounds.

“That’s when they came in and told us he had been pronounced dead of a heart attack at 7:06 p.m.,” Branstetter said.

Patton took no questions. News about the botched execution quickly got out as some reporters began tweeting details from the scene. The story drew worldwide attention to the death penalty, drawing a response from the White House and criticism from opponents of capital punishment. Branstetter and the other reporters who had witnessed the scene stayed in the media center to finish their stories and recount what they had watched.

Related: Everything you need to know about executions in the United States

 

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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