Botched Clayton Lockett Execution Raises Deep Ethical Questions, Groups Say

A botched execution in Oklahoma on Tuesday—the latest in a recent string of executions that haven't gone according to plan—reflects the narrow parameters, some set by medical associations, within which death penalty states must work when administering lethal injections.

Oklahoma state law requires that a doctor be present to observe lethal injections.

But the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and a number of other medical groups have ethical codes that bar their members from administering the drugs themselves because doing so conflicts with the Hippocratic Oath. Instead, a third party, such as an EMT, injects the drugs, and a doctor on premises confirms the inmate has died.

This could be a real turning point in the whole debate as people get disgusted by this sort of thing.

Executions in Oklahoma and elsewhere have been complicated in recent years as the drugs have become harder for state governments to procure and as a major pharmacists association considers a change to its ethics code to prohibit its members from compounding drugs to be used in executions.

The ethical quandaries surrounding lethal injection drew new attention on Tuesday night, when death row inmate Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack after officials attempted to execute him using untested drug mix. Lockett, who was supposed to die quickly and painlessly, instead remained alive for 43 minutes, far longer than any other death row inmate in the state since 2010.

The execution led to a strong outcry from the White House, the temporary stay of another man’s execution, and the promise of an investigation by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin.

A Turning Point?

Anti-death-penalty advocacy groups, such as the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), say Lockett’s case could be pivotal.

“This could be a real turning point in the whole debate as people get disgusted by this sort of thing,” DPIC Executive Director Richard Dieter told The Guardian. “This might lead to a halt in executions until states can prove they can do it without problems. Someone was killed tonight by incompetence.”

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers shares this view, with President Jerry J. Cox stating that Lockett’s execution “should shock the conscience of all Americans, including those who have to this point supported what is, at its core, a barbaric and medieval practice.”

But even after Lockett’s botched execution, capital punishment maintained its defenders.

“I certainly don’t believe we ought to be tormenting them or torturing them,” National District Attorneys Association board member Joshua Marquis told USA Today. “But the fact that they don’t all come off seamlessly does not mean that we have a tremendous crisis with the death penalty.”


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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