At the end of April, an execution in Oklahoma that went horribly wrong — leaving inmate Clayton Lockett writhing in apparent pain before he eventually died of a massive heart attack — sparked a national debate about the ethics of the death penalty. The media attention has largely been focused on the fact that Oklahoma used a secret combination of untested drugs in its lethal injections. But according to an independent autopsy report commissioned by Lockett’s attorneys, an ineffective cocktail of lethal drugs wasn’t necessarily the biggest problem that night.
In fact, the IV pumping the drugs into Lockett’s body was improperly placed by individuals who may not have been trained about how to insert it correctly.
The preliminary findings by forensic pathologist Dr. Joseph Cohen report that there were “skin punctures on the extremities and right and left femoral areas” of Lockett’s body, which means that the execution team made several failed attempts to place the IV in Lockett’s groin area. Eventually, they did manage to place the IV, but the autopsy report says it only “nicked” Lockett’s femoral vein. So the lethal drugs were actually absorbed into his muscle.
Right after the botched execution, state officials claimed that Lockett’s veins “blew out,” suggesting that he may have had weak veins that were susceptible to collapsing. But the pathologist’s report disputes that, finding that Lockett actually had perfectly healthy veins. In reality, it was the IV itself that was the source of the problem.
Cohen’s autopsy report lends even more credence to the argument that lethal injections can quickly go wrong when trained medical professionals aren’t performing them. That’s an increasing issue with the way this country puts inmates to death.
Because the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Board of Anesthesiology, and the American Nurses Association all prohibit their members from assisting in executions, saying it violates their code of medical ethics, there aren’t always qualified people in the room when inmates are being prepared for lethal injection. And that can lead to situations like the one in Oklahoma, where prison employees struggle for nearly an hour to find a vein.
Oklahoma law stipulates that lethal injections require a “licensed/certified health care specialist in IV insertion.” But the official documents from the Department of Corrections state that a “phlebotomist” — an individual who is unlicensed, unregulated, and not specifically trained to insert IVs, at least in Oklahoma — was in charge of preparing Lockett for execution. After the Tulsa World investigated further to try to figure out exactly who was in charge of Lockett’s IV, state officials said it was actually an EMT.
This is a persistent problem with lethal injections across the country. Although a sterilized process of using a needle may give the impression that lethal injection is a more humane option for ending a life, there’s increasing evidence that it isn’t necessarily quick and painless. At least 13 executions have been botched since 2000 specifically because state officials could not immediately locate inmates’ veins. In fact, one review of executions between 1890 and 2010 found that lethal injections actually have the highest error rate of any method of killing a condemned person.
Some medical professionals have actually begun to advocate for alternate forms of execution that don’t require as much help from trained doctors and are therefore harder to mess up. Oklahoma lawmakers appear to be on board with that idea, too. One state legislator, Rep. Mike Christian (R), is already pushing for the return of firing squads, hangings, and the electric chair. Christian would also settle for even more gruesome options — he recently said that he doesn’t care if death row inmates are fed to lions.
At the beginning of September, the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety released the results from its own state investigation into Lockett’s execution. That report reached the same conclusions as Cohen’s preliminary autopsy did. “This investigation concluded the viability of the IV access point was the single greatest factor that contributed to the difficulty in administering the execution drugs,” the report notes, concluding that the Department of Corrections needs to establish formal training programs for the people assisting in executions.