When Lethal Injection Becomes Torture

Yesterday, April 29, 2013, in the execution chamber of the Oklahoma state penitentiary in McAlester, OK, Clayton D. Lockett was put to death, or, better stated, tortured to death. His execution did not go according to plan and was horribly botched by the state prison officials in attendance resulting in agonizing pain and suffering at the hands of the state officials charged with the execution.  According to published reports, the State of Oklahoma was for the first time using a three drug “cocktail” in which the drugs to be administered were “midazolam” followed by “vecuronium bromide” and ending with “potassium chloride.”

Witnesses described Lockett as convulsing and writhing on the gurney, as well as struggling to speak, before officials blocked the witnesses from seeing anything else by pulling down the blinds to the execution chamber and announcing that there had been a “vein” failure. Lockett’s writhing in pain went on for some three minutes after the first drug was administered. In total he lasted 16 minutes without being pronounced dead, which precipitated the lowering of the blinds and a halting of the execution.

Bizarre as this set of facts may sound, it is not the first reported case of a botched execution by lethal injection. The case of Dennis McGuire in Ohio was widely reported after his execution in January, 2014 also involved his being able to speak after the administration of sedatives and his dying declaration that, “I feel my whole body burning…”  Or the case of Joseph Clark, also in Ohio, in which the execution was reported to have taken some 90 minutes during which, also after administration of sedating drugs, the condemned man was heard saying, “it don’t work. It don’t work.” And in yet another case of a botched execution, Angel Diaz in Florida agonized for 34 minutes and only succumbed after a second IV was inserted and drugs re-administered.  During this entire ordeal, according to published reports, Diaz continually appeared to mouth words.

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Additionally, there is little doubt that the US government is bound by the general jus cogens principle of international law  that states unequivocally that torture is illegal. Torture is expressly prohibited in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948), The American Convention on Human Rights (ratified by the US in 1977), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by the US in 1992) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (ratified by the US in 1990). The United States Government has certain legal obligations to ensure that they are not participating in activities that can be defined as torture. By experimenting with different drug combinations and refusing to divulge the exact drugs used at each execution the states are effectively using human beings as Guinea Pigs in the search for an effective means for bringing about death. Until the right drug combination is found more people will continue being tortured in the process.

There is no doubt that Clayton Lockett, Dennis McGuire, Joseph Clark and Angel Diaz were all tortured during their executions in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and universally recognized principles of international law.  The case of Clayton Lockett is just the latest indication that an immediate moratorium on all executions should be put in place until appropriate medical studies may be undertaken to ensure that those put to death are not tortured to death.

By:  Ivan E. Mercado