It’s hard to know where to start deconstructing Tuesday night’s death row horror show in Oklahoma. Minutes after it began, the lethal injection of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett somehow went awry in such a way that the condemned man started having seizures, the administering physician aborted the injection, Lockett died anyway after 40 twitch-filled minutes, and, as a result, the evening’s second scheduled execution of inmate Charles Warner was postponed until someone determines what the hell went wrong.
In the wake of such a grisly screw up, it is tempting to play the blame game. Sure, Oklahoma wanted Lockett dead, but not like that. Whatever your views on capital punishment, the incident raises questions of basic competence. After all, if a state is going to command the power of life and death over its citizens—even if they are very, very bad citizens—it should take care to do the job right.
Still, execution is tricky business. Do it often enough, and things are bound to go wrong. Veins blow. Faulty drugs get into the mix. Every now and again, compelling evidence surfaces to suggest that perhaps you have killed an innocent man. Granted, Oklahoma isn’t Texas (whose 515 executions since 1976 crush all the other states’ records). But as the old Avis ad goes, as No. 2, Oklahoma (with a solid 111 kills) tries harder.
While the circumstances of Lockett’s death are hideous in their own right, his recent legal backstory adds a layer of grotesque irony to the picture. As you may have heard, death-penalty states are having trouble these days acquiring the pharmaceuticals needed for lethal-injection cocktails. Some drug makers are refusing to sell to them, leaving states scrambling for alternative, often barely regulated, sources—sources they then fight tooth and nail to keep secret. This has raised all kinds of concerns about effectiveness and quality control. States are passing secrecy laws, and legal challenges to these laws are being filed—including in Oklahoma.
But as the old Avis ad goes, as No. 2, Oklahoma (with a solid 111 kills) tries harder.
As it turns out, Lockett’s case had been smack dab in the middle of this legal wrangling. Last year, when it ran short of its usual cocktail, Oklahoma adopted a new mix of drugs, the details of which the state refused to share with either Lockett or Warner. Earlier this year, the condemned men’s attorneys petitioned the court for stays of execution while the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s injection-drug secrecy law was determined. In late March, a trial judge ruled the law unconstitutional. (“I do not think this is even a close call,” he said.) What followed was a round of jurisdictional back-and-forth between the state Supreme Court and the state Criminal Court of Appeals that degenerated into a game of political hot potato, the particulars of which you can find here and the result of which was the state high court’s April 21 decision to grant a stay while it reviewed the law.
Enter Governor Mary Fallin. On April 22, Fallin overruled the court, issuing an executive order asserting that it had overstepped its constitutional authority and that the executions would move forward the following week.
From here, the situation only got weirder. On April 23, state Rep. Mike Christian filed an impeachment resolution against the justices who had ordered the stay for “willful neglect of duty.” That same day, the high court did a 180 and green-lighted the executions. Thus were Lockett and Warner set to meet their maker Tuesday night.
Considering how the evening turned out, Fallin is presumably having second thoughts about so proudly giving the finger to the state’s high court.
Indeed, at her very brief televised statement Wednesday, the governor looked shaken. She kept swallowing hard and stumbling over her words. She reminded everyone of Lockett’s atrocities and the due process he received, then assured us that Warner’s execution was on hold until an independent review of the state’s protocols could be conducted—even if that meant extending the two-week delay she had set the prior night. After maybe five minutes, the governor made like Keyser Soze, leaving assembled reporters shouting questions at her vanishing form.
Now, obviously, no branch of Oklahoma government covered itself in glory on this. Rep. Mike Christian? The warring courts that left two men in legal limbo and ultimately resolved nothing? Pathetic.
But it’s Fallin who comes out looking worst of all. Her rush to ignore a court ruling she disliked in order to expedite a pair of potentially problematic executions smacks of the executive thuggishness she has displayed on other issues. Remember last November, when the Defense Department ordered Oklahoma to process spousal benefits for gay members of the National Guard? Fallin’s response was to prohibit the state from processing benefits for all Guard members. This loud display of pique lasted about a week before Fallin quietly reversed herself.
Around that same time, Fallin tried to silence Oklahoma educators who had been publicly criticizing the state’s new A-F grading system. (Prior to 2012, the state used a numbers-based system.) On November 2, The Tulsa World reported:
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin is warning educators that continuing public criticism of the state’s A-F school grading system may affect whether common education gets additional funding next fiscal year.
“It's not helpful to anyone’s cause. It seems to be some opponents are absolutely bent on undermining the credibility of the entire system,” said Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz. “The fact of the matter is this grading system, regardless of whether or not you believe it should have been put together differently, is the law.”
A mini-backlash ensued—including snickering about how Fallin wasn’t much for the law-of-the-land argument when it came to Obamacare--prompting Weintz to issue a written clarification, “Gov. Fallin has not and will not threaten (additional state) funding for schools based on opposition to the A-F grading system.”
This latest Fallin-related fiasco, obviously, is far more serious--and may wind up having broad repercussions. Already, death-penalty opponents are mobilizing around Lockett. “This could be a real turning point in the whole debate as people get disgusted by this sort of thing," Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Reuters.
This may not be the sort of leadership Governor Fallin was hoping to show on this issue. But at this point, it’s the best she can hope for.