Oklahoma is the state where the botched execution of Clayton Lockett brought the issue of capital punishment back into the spotlight. It turns out that that state is the most gung-ho when it comes to killing people, having the most executions per capita in the US (although Texas which comes in second has the greatest absolute number ) and taking an almost perverse pride in doing so.
Wade Goodwyn reports on the messy legal maneuvering before the Lockett execution, with the Oklahoma Supreme Court first issuing a stay because of a suit brought against the state because it kept secret the drugs that were used in the execution. But the state legislature threatened to impeach every single judge who voted for the stay and remarkably, within 48 hours, the court unanimously reversed itself, leading to the Lockett debacle. As a result of the furor over that execution, there is now a six-month moratorium on future executions in the state until they figure out what went wrong.
Public opinion in the US is still in favor of the death penalty with 55% supporting it, although it has been in a steady decline since 1996 when support reached a peak of 78%. It is only for just a couple of years around 1968 that opposition exceeded support by a tiny amount. You can see statistics on the death penalty in the US here.
Between 1968 and 1977 there was a moratorium on executions as the US Supreme Court found that existing methods of sentencing in the states were unconstitutional although they did not rule that the death penalty itself was. This resulted in the states modifying their death penalty statutes to make them complaint. The moratorium ended with the execution of Gary Gilmore by a firing squad in 1977 which garnered huge news coverage. Laura Sullivan reports that following the media circus that accompanied the Gilmore execution, it was Oklahoma that pioneered the use of the three drug cocktail for executions.
This process was created by a doctor and initially medical personnel were the ones who administered it but over time doctors and nurses have increasingly refused to participate in executions, leaving it to prison personnel to administer the drugs and they simply did not have the competence to do it properly and mistakes have become increasingly common. Furthermore, the act of cold-bloodedly killing another human being has taken a toll on the executioners, even if one was involved just peripherally or was an observer.
“This is not normal behavior for right-minded humans to engage in,” says Steve Martin, who participated in several executions in Texas in the 1980s. His job was to man the phones in case of a reprieve. He says the whole process is emotionally crippling.
He remembers a couple of times when the execution team couldn’t get the needles inserted properly.
“Boy, it just ratcheted up everything,” he says.
“People don’t realize,” he says, “you just killed somebody, and you’ve been a part of it, and it affects all of us.”
Carroll Pickett was the chaplain at 95 executions in Texas through the mid-1990s. He remembers one time when prison staff spent 40 minutes trying to find a vein until the inmate sat up and helped them. “Some of them would go outside and throw up,” he says.
Over time, Pickett says, the staff unraveled. “And these were some good, good men. Basically, they all left. Every one of them,” he says.
Pickett and Steve Martin both say the memories of every execution haunt them.
Which raises the question: Leaving aside the question of the morality of the state executing people, when everyone involved in implementing the death penalty seems to be diminished and even traumatized by it, why do we continue this practice?