McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

Local News

May 9, 2014

Execution ritual cloaked in secrecy

McALESTER — Black-hooded executioners passing through the halls of Oklahoma State Penitentiary on execution day form one of Randy Lopez’s most vivid memories during the years he worked on death row.

Lopez, now retired from the Department of Corrections, said he never knew who was under the hoods. Executioners’ identities — even genders — were close secrets kept from everyone including those responsible for guarding death row.

In a further measure to protect their identities, the people whose job it was to push the plungers filled with lethal drugs were always first to arrive before an execution, Lopez said.

They were led to an anteroom next to the execution chamber, out of the view of witnesses.

Afterward, they were last to leave.

Oklahoma has executed 96 prisoners since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, and the execution ritual at the penitentiary in McAlester is proscribed by policies that detail everything including the shoes a condemned prisoner must wear.

But key parts including identities of major players — phlebotomists, doctors who monitor the procedure and executioners — are kept secret by courts and state law.

Problems that delayed and ultimately led prison officials to halt the execution of Clayton Lockett, 38, on April 29, have intensified calls for transparency from death penalty opponents. Lockett died of an apparent heart attack, prison officials said, shortly after the procedure was stopped.

Brady Henderson, legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, said while some parts of the execution are clear, many others are hidden behind a “wall of secrecy.” The public, he said, doesn’t know who’s involved, their training, how much they get paid, the source of the lethal drugs or their purity.

“There are even a lot of controls that people working there at the prison have no idea who they are,” said Henderson.

Henderson said courts, at least, must be apprised of which pharmacy supplies the execution drugs, as well as whether the phlebotomist who inserts IVs into the prisoner is properly certified. Strange things can happen, he said, if drugs are not administered correctly.

“You can have a drug that is essentially a different drug when it hits your bloodstream,” he said. “You can have a lot of bizarre things happen.”

Execution stalled

Such questions of transparency stalled Lockett’s execution for months, as well as that of Charles Warner, who had been scheduled to die the same night in a rare, double execution. Lawyers for both fought to learn the supplier of a drug — the benzodiazepine called midazolam — the state planned to use in its three-drug lethal injection cocktail for the first time.

Gov. Mary Fallin eventually ordered the executions to proceed.

Lockett’s did not go as expected. A phlebotomist was unable to find a viable vein for the IV used to administer the lethal drugs anywhere but in Lockett’s groin, according to a description later released by the Department of Corrections.

Prison officials said the vein collapsed during the execution. Though the midazolam was supposed to render Lockett unconscious, witnesses described him as writhing, grimacing and grunting in apparent pain before the procedure was stopped.

Lockett died more than 40 minutes after the first drugs were injected. His body has since been sent to Dallas for an autopsy.

Warner has since been granted a 180-day stay of execution.

Given the investigation into the Lockett’s execution by the state Department of Public Safety, prison officials have refused to further discuss what happened April 29.

Lopez, who spent nearly two decades as a guard in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, including two on death row, said he’s noticed that condemned prisoners, including Lockett, seem to display "a lot more showmanship" than those who proceeded them.

“Generally, as a rule back when I was there, inmates took pride in walking into the death chamber like a man,” he said. “They didn’t fight.”

Though he never witnessed an execution, Lopez said there were about a half-dozen during his two-year assignment. He helped work some of those from the prison’s control room.

Lockett — who had been sentenced to die for his role for a kidnapping, rape and murder in June 1999 — started his last day fighting, prompting prison officials to subdue him with a Taser, according to the Department of Corrections statement. He had cut his arm and refused all food, including his last meal.

Lopez said such “showmanship” riles death penalty opponents — especially outside Oklahoma — who question the validity of the state’s procedure.

“I mean, they have the power to really swing the public over here,” he said. “I mean, everybody in Oklahoma says, ‘Yeah, he got what he deserved. Who cares if he lived 45 minutes?’ I haven’t heard one person say, ‘Oh, poor inmate. Oh, poor murdering dog.’”

A secret process

The Oklahoma State Penitentiary changes on the day of an execution, said Lopez, who described how guards lock down death row so there’s no opportunity for other inmates to protest.

As the condemned walks toward the execution chamber, Lopez said it’s not unusual for other inmates to kick their doors — a show of respect.

Many aspects of what happens are detailed in more than 30 pages of procedure released by the Department of Corrections.

Lockett, for instance, would have received a full-body X-ray to search for hidden contraband, according to the procedure. He would have received two sets of clothing including shorts, pants, shirts, socks and shoes — as well as a mattress, sheets and blanket — after he was led to a holding cell about 10 feet from the execution chamber.

He was to be guarded at all times by at least three officers, none of whom would participate in the execution. He was not allowed personal property other than religious materials, family photos and legal materials. Per policy, he would have been dressed in scrubs and tennis shoes before being restrained on the gurney and prepared for the lethal injection.

Retired Oklahoma State Penitentiary warden Randall Workman, who did not oversee the Lockett execution but presided over 32 others during his five years in charge of the prison, said he began execution day about 4 a.m.

“It’s a very arduous and very detailed day,” he said at his home in rural southeastern Oklahoma.

The warden is tasked with handling all the logistics — including making arrangements for visitors and refreshments. Prison personnel are responsible for obtaining enough execution drugs, according to the policy.

The Department of Corrections gives itself up to five alternatives for a lethal injection. The procedure states: "The warden shall have the sole discretion as to which lethal agent will be used for the scheduled execution."

Some alternatives involve a one-drug concoction, though the state traditionally uses a three-drug combination.

Workman said each component is a lethal dose. The first drug is meant to induce unconsciousness, the second is a paralytic, and the third is designed to stop the heart. But, in many of the 32 executions he oversaw, Workman said the first drug would immediately cause death.

It also falls to current Warden Anita Trammell to line up medical personnel and three executioners for each procedure. Workman said each executioner has a different drug in their plunger and administers it when instructed by prison staff.

The state’s policy stipulates only that the phlebotomist must be qualified, the physician monitoring the procedure must be licensed, and no one’s identity may be disclosed. The rest is up to the warden.

Workman said he kept a list of several available doctors and phlebotomists, as well as about 20 executioners. They came from all walks of life — except corrections, he said. They rotated on executions.

“You’ve got a lot of people that would like to be executioners,” he said, just as morbid curiosity compelled many to ask to watch executions. He would turn people away.

Workman said he always chose people he knew were doing it out of “duty of the state."

The people who wear the hoods into the death chamber, he said, had “a lot of integrity and character.”

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