A Good Day To Die

I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

Prisoner 206409 wasn’t ready to die on 29 April when the state of Oklahoma strapped him to a gurney and struggled to fill him with poisons that wouldn’t be approved for use on a guinea pig. Turned out the state of Oklahoma wasn’t ready to kill him. They tortured him instead.

They woke Clayton Lockett early his last day, at six minutes after five, an hour and twenty-nine minutes before a sunrise he of course wouldn’t see. It was mostly cloudy anyway, nothing special.

They needed to get him over to medical, take some x-rays to be sure he was good to go for an execution. Clayton Lockett didn’t want to go.

So, the guards assigned to get him to medical had to regroup, make a plan. Fifty-one minutes later they came back with a Taser. Clayton Lockett still didn’t want to go, so they hit him with it. His brain and muscles went all scrambled, his heart did jumping jacks, his lungs took a rest, and he was gathered whimpering and wriggling to take the test that would show he was all right to be killed.

The test showed he was just fine. There was a little matter of some self-inflicted wounds — lacerations, scratches, really — that didn’t amount to much. Didn’t even need suturing. How’d he do it, anyway? Nothing sharp in the cell. He might’ve tried to claw open a vein in his right arm with the fingernails of his left hand, but he wasn’t very good at it.

Still, for the next ten hours or so, they’d check him every fifteen minutes.

About 9:15, his attorneys wanted to see him. He didn’t want to see them. They had failed to save him. But they had put up a hell of a fight, winning a stay of execution just eight days earlier from the Oklahoma Supreme Court, whose justices wanted to consider just what kind of drugs the state was prepared to use to kill Clayton Lockett.

See, it’s been hard out there for an executioner. One annoying lawyer or another is always griping about whether the chemicals used to inject capital offenders isn’t so painful or otherwise inhumane that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. And you can’t even get qualified people to administer the drugs anymore, since in 2010 the American Board of Anesthesiologists said they’d revoke the certification of any member who helped in a lethal injection. Some fussiness about “First, do no harm.”

Not only that, but supplies of the poisons have been drying up, resulting in prison officials carrying bundles of cash to secret meeting places with off-the-radar distributors. You know, drug deals.

So the governor of Oklahoma said the Supreme Court, whose business is to interpret state law, had no business interpreting that particular state law about the hush-hush meetings with the drug dealers, so she was gonna execute Clayton Lockett anyway. Two days later, the state legislature piled on with a plan to impeach the five state Justices who voted for the stay of execution. It only took a day for the justices to decide it more fashionable to wear their robes pulled slightly over their heads, and say yeah, that law’s okay after all.

At about a quarter to ten they brought Clayton Lockett his breakfast. He refused to eat. Forty-five minutes later he again refused to speak with his attorneys. They tried to give him lunch a little while after eleven and again he refused to eat. Clayton Lockett would die hungry.

A date with the executioner can make a man a little grumpy, maybe even a little ungrateful. He sat in his cell. Every fifteen minutes the guards would look in on a man with nothing to do but wait to be killed.

A little after four in the afternoon, eleven hours into his death vigil, the guards moved him to the last room he would spend time in before the execution chamber. He showered there. Clayton Lockett would die clean.

Nineteen minutes after five o’clock, Clayton Lockett got his first good look at the execution chamber. It wasn’t much to look at. Three minutes later he lay strapped to the execution table.

For fifty-one minutes they poked and prodded Clayton Lockett, looking for a good place to stick in the needle that would deliver the poison. They palpated his left arm, his right arm, his left leg, his right leg, both of his feet. They felt around his neck. Then they felt around his groin, where by the time they stuck the needle they knew him as intimately or better than anyone who had ever loved Clayton Lockett.

One hour and one minute after he was strapped to the execution table, he was asked if wanted to make a final statement. He said no. Clayton Lockett would die silent.

But, as it turned out, as the poison flowed into his blood and tissue, not quite silent.

Nearly ten minutes’ worth of burning poison later, they asked a doctor if Clayton Lockett was gone yet.

Clayton Lockett himself gasped, “I’m not.”

He lay writhing, and mumbling. Another three minutes passed, and the doctor pronounced him unconscious. Clayton Lockett must not have heard him: he still was writhing and mumbling. Someone said, “Something’s wrong.”

For twenty minutes, witnesses had been watching the whole bungled thing through a window; the warden ordered the shades lowered; they’d seen enough; too much.

For fifteen more minutes, behind the shaded window, they kept trying to kill Clayton Lockett. The doctor said the vein in Clayton Lockett’s groin had collapsed, that the drugs either absorbed into the tissue, leaked out, or both. The warden called the director of prisons. “Have enough drugs been administered to cause death?” the director wanted to know. “Is another vein available? Are there enough drugs?” No, to everything.

At almost seven in the evening, a light rain gusting against the roof of the execution chamber, the director called off the execution. The state of Oklahoma failed to kill Clayton Lockett. But, though surely no one intended it that way, the hours of torture that had begun at five in the morning at last took their toll on Clayton Lockett’s heart. It stopped on him, ten minutes after he was spared execution. Prisoner 206409 was in someone else’s care.

I don’t much care about Clayton Lockett. He was a terrible man, who did terrible things. But I wonder about all the people on 29 April whose jobs required them to do terrible things to Clayton Lockett.

He’s dead. But he wasn’t the one who prodded him like a sheep to the slaughterhouse, who poked him endlessly looking for a place to put poison in him, who watched him die, heard him die, smelled him die. All those other folks will remember what terrible things they did that day, all the days of their lives.

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One Response to A Good Day To Die

  1. Bruce Luyendyk 9 May 2014 at 12:24 pm #

    We all are judged by the quality of our mercy…

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