Oklahoma's Botched Execution
Wed April 30, 2014 10:23 am

A majority of Americans favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. So too do a majority of Texans. Of note, though, is that this is an issue where Texans are markedly more conservative than Americans as a group, according to the polls, at least: as of 2013, according to the UT/Texas Tribune, 74% of Texans strongly or somewhat support capital punishment. By contrast, according to Gallup, 60% of Americans are in favor of it.

The disjunct may be partly due to the way the respective pollsters phrased their question--Gallup asked a binary question, whereas the UT/TT framework allows for a couple of shades of gray. Given that Texas famously leads the nation in executions, though, a more plausible explanation is that capital punishment is normalized in this state in a way that it may not be in others.

That being the case, it's worth taking a moment to consider what happened last night in Oklahoma. Convicted murderer Clayton Lockett, who was scheduled to be executed, died instead of a heart attack after the execution went awry--losing consciousness for a few minutes, according to eyewitnesses, before regaining it, experiencing a seizure, and apparently dying in horrible pain. Exactly how the execution went wrong isn't quite clear. Critics of capital punishment quickly pointed to the three-drug cocktail the state was using--a cocktail that Lockett and another inmate scheduled for execution last night had sued the state over, arguing that the state's refusal to disclose its suppliers meant that it couldn't guarantee the execution wouldn't go awry. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections, however, said that the issue was a blown vein; Ben Crair, at The New Republic, argues that "basic medical errors" were therefore the issue.

Whatever the cause, the botched execution means that Oklahoma's use of capital punishment will surely be challenged; already, the state has put a temporary hold on the second execution it had planned for last night. And, as the Los Angeles Times noted, the botched execution could revive court challenges that might affect all states. The Supreme Court has never ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional in theory, or that it is inevitably cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional, but it has issued many decisions restricting how and when it may be applied. If the incident in Oklahoma was a foreseeable accident--foreseeable because of the new drug cocktail, or because of insufficient medical oversight in the execution chamber--the rules about executions may be tightened nationwide. 

The Texas Department of Corrections isn't planning any voluntary changes in response to what happened in Oklahoma. A spokesman told reporters that Texas switched over to a single-drug method of execution in 2012 (and has used it several times without any incident other than the executions themselves). But Texas's executions will surely come under scrutiny, because this state, like Oklahoma, has recently started using execution drugs obtained from a secret supplier

That's legal, for now; at the beginning of the month, Texas executed a man hours after the Supreme Court rejected his appeal for a last-minute stay on that basis. But such secrecy may not be prudent for Texans who support capital punishment, who should hope for executions to proceed as smoothly as possible. Botched executions generally trigger court cases. They certainly disrupt the sense of normalcy that allows nearly three-quarters of Texans to express support of the status quo.

( AP Image/Pat Sullivan )

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