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Drug Protocol Goes Wrong In Oklahoma Execution


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In McAlester, Okla., last night, convicted murderer Clayton Lockett died in the state's execution chamber, but not the way prison officials had planned. His execution went badly wrong, as the state used a new combination of drugs. Finally, it was stopped 43 minutes after the execution began. Lockett was declared dead of a heart attack.

Ziva Branstetter is a reporter with the Tulsa, Okla., World newspaper and she was there last night. She joined us to describe what happened, and many listeners might find her descriptions disturbing. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: So what, exactly, happened after the prison team started to give Lockett the drugs?

BRANSTETTER: So the execution began at 6:23 p.m. He had no last words. At 6:33 p.m., the physician inside the execution room checked, and it was announced that Mr. Lockett is unconscious. At about 6:36 p.m., and for the next three minutes, Lockett began writhing and kicking his legs, mumbling things that we couldn't understand. He - several times - lifted his head and shoulders entirely off the gurney. His body was secured to the gurney so, you know, obviously he couldn't get up, but he certainly looked like he was trying to get up. He was rolling his head from side to side. And at 6:38, it sounded like he said, man! - and continued to lift his head up. The physician walked around to his right arm and lifted up the sheet and looked at his arm. And then the warden said: We're going to lower the blinds temporarily. So they lowered the blinds, and we couldn't see what was happening after that.

MONTAGNE: All of which sounds clearly, very disturbing. I mean, we do know that states are trying new execution procedures because they can't get the traditional drugs produced in Europe anymore. Tell us about the drugs that Oklahoma used last night.

BRANSTETTER: Oklahoma, for the first time, used a three-drug cocktail that consisted of midazolam, which is a sedative; pancuronium bromide, which is a paralytic intended stop the breathing; and potassium chloride, which is intended to stop the heart. So, the first drug, 50 milligrams of that drug was injected into each arm. We don't know how much of the second and third drug, if any, entered the inmate's body.

MONTAGNE: And is there a controversy over this drug?

BRANSTETTER: There's controversy over the fact that Oklahoma has a secrecy law that shields the suppliers of the drug. Attorneys for the inmates filed a lawsuit over this issue, and ultimately lost. So I believe there's going to be some review and investigation over whether this drug - whether it's safe, whether it causes pain and suffering.

MONTAGNE: Now, a second execution that was scheduled for last night was canceled after this. Tell us what the fallout is.

BRANSTETTER: Well, I think this turn of events has left people with a lot of questions about whether Oklahoma spent enough time studying this new drug cocktail, the new drug protocol. I think there will be some legal challenges. They will be some questions about whether the secrecy law should remain in place. But largely, they're going to be looking at this specific drug - midazolam - that was used, and whether we're using enough of it, and whether the O state's using the right combination.

MONTAGNE: You know, I think it's important to remember that Clayton Lockett was convicted of a horrific crime - shooting and burying alive a teenager by the name of Stephanie Neiman. Who was in the witness chamber with you last night? Because I'm wondering what the emotions were in that room.

BRANSTETTER: Right. Well, they do have a separate viewing chamber for the victim's relatives, so are - cannot see their reactions. But in the witness chamber with us, there were two defense attorneys. One of them began crying as Clayton began to have this violent reaction. And the reporters were shaken as well, especially the ones who had not witnessed an execution before. This is my fourth execution to witness, but I've never seen anything like this during an execution.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

BRANSTETTER: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: That's Ziva Branstetter with the Tulsa World newspaper, who witnessed the bungled execution last night of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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