Clayton Lockett Botched Execution: Drugs Used in Capital Punishment

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Lethal injection requires that the procedure be done humanely. Image by CACorrections

Lethal injection must be done humanely. Image by CACorrections

Oklahoma’s legal system sentenced inmate Clayton Lockett to death for rape and murder, and set his execution date for Tuesday, April 29, 2014.

Prison workers placed Lockett on the gurney and the execution began – however, something went wrong. According to the National Journal, Lockett was declared unconscious about ten minutes after receiving a new, untested three-drug cocktail.

Then Lockett woke up a few minutes later, was breathing heavily, and began to writhing and muttering incoherently.

Prison officials drew the curtain so that those in the viewing area couldn’t see what happened after that.

Lockett died of a heart attack 43 minutes after given the new drug cocktail.

Oklahoma Execution Methods

This was the first time Oklahoma used the new mix of three-drugs for an execution. According to CNN, the first, second, and third drugs were given in protocol. Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton told CNN, “There was some concern at that time that the drugs were not having the effect. So the doctor observed the line and determined that the line had blown.”

The term ‘exploded’ or ‘blown’ vein refers to a situation in which the needle goes through both sides of the vein, or when the vein tears because it cannot tolerate the amount of fluid going in.

Even though the execution was halted, Lockett died from a heart attack.

Three-Drug Cocktail

The three drugs that they used included midazolam, vecuronium bromide to stop respiration, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Medical workers start two intravenous lines, one in each arm, and then inject the drugs by hand, at the same time in each arm. The state uses three executioners; each one injects a different drug.

  • Midazolam, more commonly called Versed,  is a drug that doctors often use to cause sleepiness or drowsiness and to relive anxiety before surgeries or procedures. Doctors also use this medication to produce amnesia so that the patient will not remember any undesirable effects or discomforts. Children often receive this drug before surgeries, for example. Serious side effects can include, shallow, slowed breathing, or even temporarily stopped breathing.
  • Vecuronium bromide is a drug that is generally given when a person has to be intubated (when doctors put a tube in your windpipe to maintain an open airway) to help relax their muscles. Adverse reactions include muscle weakness to paralysis that can result in respiration insufficiency or a stop in breathing.
  • Doctors use potassium chloride conventionally to treat low levels of potassium in the blood. Serious side effects include confusion, anxiety, uneven heartbeat, severe stomach pain coughing up blood or vomit that looks like coffee grounds. Seizures, confusion, shallow breathing, and slow heart rate are signs of an overdose.
Potassium chloride can be given as a liquid in an IV to stop the heart during execution. Image by Walkerma

Potassium chloride can be given as a liquid in an IV to stop the heart during execution. Image by Walkerma

Death Penalty and Chemical Execution

The death penalty is legal in 32 states, as well as in the U.S. government and the military. Since 2009, New Mexico, Connecticut, and Maryland have voted to abolish it.

Capital punishment is a consequence for some crimes; however, it must be carried out humanely. The botched execution in Oklahoma may mean that the topic of capital punishment is revived – as well as a discussion of the ethics that surround this very sensitive topic.

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