The Guardian, ACLU sue for greater media access to executions


On the left, the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary; on the right, the chairs for witnesses. (AP)

Two news organizations filed a lawsuit Monday asking for greater media access to executions in Oklahoma following a highly publicized botched execution that was largely hidden from the view of the reporters selected to bear witness.

Journalists are often among the only people who witness executions, which are carried out far from the public eye. Relatives of victims, attorneys, state officials and other people who volunteer may attend executions, but media witnesses are the ones who watch so they can relate to the world how the state has executed one of its citizens.

The lawsuit filed Monday morning by the Guardian’s U.S. operation, the Oklahoma Observer, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma demands that the Oklahoma Department of Corrections allow journalists and other witnesses to see everything that happens from the moment an inmate enters the execution chamber.

This lawsuit specifically cites Oklahoma’s botched execution of inmate Clayton Lockett in April, which drew worldwide attention as well as criticism from President Obama and the United Nations. Lockett, a convicted murderer, writhed and grimaced before dying, according to eyewitnesses.

However, these witnesses were not able to see the entirety of what happened, as they were unable to watch Lockett’s final minutes. The media, and therefore the public, “received only government-edited access to an important government proceeding,” says the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma.

“The state of Oklahoma violated the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of the press to witness executions so the public can be informed about the government’s actions and hold it accountable,” Lee Rowland, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “The death penalty represents the most powerful exercise of government authority. The need for public oversight is as critical at the execution stage as it is during trial.”

The media accounts that drew so much attention were invariably incomplete, as we learned in the days after Lockett died, because key things occurred with the blinds to the execution chamber closed.

Lockett’s execution began 23 minutes late, and only later did the head of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections reveal that this was because a technician was having trouble inserting the IV. Five minutes before the blinds were lifted, the needle was inserted into Lockett’s groin and a sheet placed over the area, so witnesses could not tell where the needle went or see the multiple failed attempts at inserting the needle. (An independent autopsy later said that the issue with the execution stemmed from a failure to properly place the IV.)

Instead, the blinds went up and merely revealed Lockett on a gurney and with the sheet over him. After the execution began, Lockett began reacting violently, clenching his jaw and trying to lift his head up. Officials lowered the blinds and never lifted them back up, preventing the shaken eyewitnesses from seeing what came next.

An examination in the execution chamber determined that Lockett’s vein had collapsed, letting the drugs spill out or get absorbed into the tissue, rather than into Lockett’s bloodstream, according to the official timeline released by Robert Patton, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Patton announced that the execution had been halted, and a short time later, witness were told that Lockett had died of a heart attack.

“The press was unable to observe Lockett’s final moments or eventual death,” the new lawsuit states. “As a result, the public was deprived of objective accounts as to whether, at the time of his death, the State was still attempting to execute Lockett, or in the alternative, attempting to provide medical care after calling off his execution.”

Oklahoma has not released the results of the state autopsy or a review ordered by Gov. Mary Fallin (R). Another execution originally scheduled to occur the same night Lockett was killed has also been delayed until the review is complete.

“At an execution, the press serves as the public’s eyes and ears,” Katie Fretland, who reported on the execution for the Guardian and is listed as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “The government shouldn’t be allowed to effectively blindfold us when things go wrong.”

Fretland was one of the dozen reporters who attended Lockett’s execution, selected through a lottery system because more than 12 journalists wanted to witness it. Like the other people who filed into that small room on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, she arrived expecting to watch and document the end of Lockett’s life. Instead, she reported on the botch and on Lockett’s death, which occurred away from the gathered witnesses.

“The public has a right to the whole story, not a version edited by government officials,” she said.

This is the second lawsuit this year that the Guardian, along with other media outlets, has filed regarding capital punishment. The Guardian and the Associated Press were among the news organizations that sued the Missouri Department of Corrections in May to try to force the state to reveal more about where it had obtained the drugs utilized in lethal injections.

States across the U.S. are struggling to obtain lethal injection drugs due to an ongoing shortage, and their attempts to find these drugs have been shrouded in a secrecy that Chris Koster, the Missouri attorney general, said “may not be prudent.”

Lockett’s execution was one of three that went awry this year. In January, Ohio’s execution of Dennis McGuire took nearly half an hour. Last month, an execution in Arizona lasted for nearly two hours; witnesses said that Joseph R. Wood III gasped and snorted as he was given 15 doses of the lethal injection drugs. State officials have defended the execution, but Gov. Jan Brewer (R) ordered a review and the state will not try to carry out any executions while the review is ongoing.

Despite another high-profile, problematic execution, the states that carry out the most executions told The Washington Post that they did not plan to change anything. Missouri carried out the country’s 27th execution of the year just weeks after Arizona’s drawn-out execution.

After Lockett’s execution, nearly two months passed before another state carried out an execution. That streak was broken when three states — Georgia, Missouri and Florida — carried out three executions in less than 24 hours.

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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