Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 7, 2014

House of Burgess: Our (lethal injection) drug problem

Fatal components increasingly scarce

By Rob Burgess
Tribune columnist

— America has a drug problem. Specifically, a lethal injection drug problem.

Ziva Branstetter’s account of Clayton Darrell Lockett’s tortuous April 29 demise is Exhibit A. The Tulsa World enterprise editor was one of several horrified witnesses to the botched execution at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. The real trouble started 13 minutes in when Lockett began moving violently and speaking incoherently. The following moments are ghastly:

6:38 p.m. - “Lockett is grimacing, grunting and lifting his head and shoulders entirely up from the gurney. He begins rolling his head from side to side. He again mumbles something we can’t understand, except for the word ‘man.’ He lifts his head and shoulders off the gurney several times, as if he’s trying to sit up. He appears to be in pain.”

6:39 p.m. - “The physician walks around to Lockett’s right arm, lifts up the sheet and says something to [Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Anita Trammell]. ‘We’re going to lower the blinds temporarily,’ she says. The blinds are lowered and we can’t see what is happening. Reporters exchange shocked glances. Nothing like this has happened at an execution any of us has witnessed since 1990, when the state resumed executions using lethal injection.”

All told, it took 33 minutes to call off the execution, and 10 more gruesome revolutions of the second hand for Lockett to expire — of a heart attack. Just days before, concerns over the origin of the state’s novel mixture of midazolam (paralytic), vecuronium bromide (muscle relaxant) and potassium chloride (lethal dose) had been silenced by Oklahoma’s highest court.

“Oklahoma plans to hold its first double execution in nearly 80 years, said Gov. Mary Fallin … The move comes a day after the state Supreme Court [ruled April 23 that Lockett] and Charles Warner are not entitled to know the source of the drugs that will be used to kill them,” reported Sean Murphy of The Associated Press April 24.

After the slow-motion train wreck of Lockett’s death, Warner’s execution was put on hold while the investigation began. This is not even the first time this year a lethal injection, in which the state refused to say from where exactly it obtained the toxic ingredients, went awry.

“Ohio prison officials said … a review of the controversial January execution of Dennis McGuire has determined that he did not suffer any distress, but they will increase the dosage of the lethal injection next time,” reported Tracy Connor of NBC News April 28. “McGuire … took 25 minutes to die after being injected with an untried cocktail of drugs. He appeared to be gasping for breath at points, witnesses reported at the time.”

Capital punishment has been abolished in 100 countries. Yet, we continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of North Korea, China and Iran. Our increasingly out-of-step approval of convict murder is the very reason we’re in this mess.

“Hospira announced today it will exit the sodium thiopental market and no longer attempt to resume production of its product, Pentothal,” stated a Jan. 21, 2011 press release. “Hospira had intended to produce Pentothal at its Italian plant. In the last month, we’ve had ongoing dialogue with the Italian authorities concerning the use of Pentothal in capital punishment procedures in the United States — a use Hospira has never condoned.”

Other civilized countries think of us as an antiquated minority because of our stance; and they won’t be party to it. This shift led to panic in America’s prisons.

“As the sole U.S. supplier of the drug, Hospira left virtually all death rows without a steady supplier of lethal injection agents — a distribution opportunity no other domestic manufacturer was ready (or willing) to seize,” reported Newsweek’s John Ericson April 30. “With drug alternatives and supplier options running out, state-sponsored death has come to rely largely on loopholes and secrecy.”

As a nation addicted to the death penalty, expect more such grisly scenes as our fixes become harder and harder to obtain.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.