Autopsy finds failure to place IV properly during botched Oklahoma execution


Clayton Lockett in 2011. (Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP)

During the botched lethal injection in Oklahoma this year which drew international criticism and renewed attention to the debate over the death penalty, the execution team failed to properly place the IV, according to an independent autopsy conducted last month.

This autopsy was performed by Joseph I. Cohen, a forensic pathologist who was hired by attorneys for death row inmates in Oklahoma. Cohen released his preliminary findings in a report last week. The results of the state’s autopsy have not been released.

Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer, was set to die by lethal injection  April 29. He began writhing and grimacing on the gurney, witnesses said, and eventually the execution was halted. Lockett died 43 minutes after the execution began.

Oklahoma was using a new lethal injection drug for the first time during Lockett’s execution. But this report, and the problems disclosed by an official timeline released by the state, point to issues with the IV rather than with the drugs.

Cohen’s findings “indicate extraordinary incompetence on the part of the execution team that was separate and apart from the drugs used,” Deborah W. Denno, a death penalty expert and a professor at Fordham Law School, said in a statement.

Lockett’s execution began late because the technician had trouble finding a place to insert the IV, according to Robert Patton, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. The technician looked at Lockett’s arms, legs, feet and neck before placing the IV in his groin area.

After Lockett was deemed unconscious, he began grimacing, clenching his teeth and trying to lift his head. A doctor examined the IV and found that “the blood vein had collapsed,” according to the official timeline Patton sent to Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin. (Patton told reporters after the episode that the doctor “determined the line had blown.”)

Cohen’s examination, carried out  May 14 in Tulsa, Okla., noted “the presence of vascular injury indicative of failed vascular catheter access.” It also found skin punctures that suggested repeated attempts at placing a needle on Lockett’s extremities and on his groin.

The state’s official timeline had noted that “no viable point of entry was located” on Lockett’s arms, legs, feet and neck before the IV was inserted into Lockett’s groin. But Cohen’s review noted the “excellent integrity” of Lockett’s veins and said that it was unlikely that dehydration played a role in the botched injection.

Fallin (R) ordered a review of Lockett’s death as well as a review of the state’s execution protocols. The state has not carried out any executions since the botched episode. Charles Warner, convicted of raping and murdering an 11-month-old, was scheduled to be executed the same night as Lockett, but his execution was postponed after the botched execution. The Oklahoma attorney general has agreed to a six-month delay for Warner’s execution.

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

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