Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

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Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent the last year hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

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Lethal Injection Is a Terrible Way To Kill People

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 12:07 PM EDT

"[T]onight, Clayton Lockett was tortured to death."—Madeline Cohen, assistant federal public defender.

Last night, Oklahoma became the latest state to botch an execution while using a new lethal injection protocol. Five minutes after injecting convicted murderer Lockett with 100 milligrams of the sedative midazolam, executioners administered two other drugs designed to paralyze him and then stop his heart. But instead of dying, Lockett started writhing and kicking and lifting his head and shoulders up off the gurney. The execution was eventually halted, but Lockett died a while later from a heart attack. State officials said that the cause of the problems was a "blown" vein line that prevented the drugs from entering the bloodstream.

Thanks to the disastrous course of events, Governor Mary Fallin (R), who recently promised to defy the state's highest court and execute Lockett despite a legal stay in the case, postponed the killing of Charles Warner, who was slated to be executed last night after Lockett. Lockett and Warner had prompted a state constitutional crisis when they filed suit over the state's secrecy statute that had denied them complete information about the source and purity of the new drugs they would be executed with.

A lower state court had found the statute unconstitutional, and after a convoluted back and forth between the higher courts, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay of the executions so the issues could be fully litigated. But Fallin threatened to execute the men anyway and accused the court of overstepping its authority; meanwhile, the state legislature began impeachment proceedings against the justices. A few days later, the court caved and allowed the executions to move forward, resulting in what witnesses called the "torture" and death of Clayton Lockett.

Experts had been watching the proceedings closely because Oklahoma planned to use a combination of drugs that has only been used once before in an execution, in Florida this year. In 2011, international pharmaceutical companies either stopped making or refused to sell prisons the drugs that had long been used in lethal injections, creating a shortage in death-penalty states. These states have sought a variety of dubious ways to address the shortage, including illegally importing the old drugs or trying out new but slower-acting drugs, as they did on Lockett.

When it was first used in Florida, midzolam—one of the new drugs used on Lockett—was given at a dose five times higher than what Oklahoma said it would use. As it turned out, though, the bungled execution may have had little to do with the drug protocol and a lot to do with a pretty common problem in lethal injection. According to Austin Sarat, an Amherst college professor and author of the timely new book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty, lethal injection is more prone to these sorts of debacles than any other form of execution used in the US since the late 19th century. His data show as many as 7 percent of lethal injection executions go awry, and often for the same reasons why Lockett suffered so much: The veins of death row inmates can't handle the needles.

Many death row inmates were once IV drug users, and by the time they reach the death chamber, their veins are a mess. Others are obese from years of confinement, which also makes their veins hard to find. Compounding that problem is the fact that the people inserting the needles usually aren't medical professionals. They're prison guards (in Oklahoma they're paid $300 for the job), and they're usually in a big hurry to get it done quickly—an factor that doesn't mesh well with the slower-acting drugs states are now resorting to.

After Florida finally retired "Old Sparky," its electric chair that had a tendency to light people on fire while killing them, it turned to lethal injection in 2000. In 2006, the state botched the execution of Angel Diaz, who took 34 minutes—three times longer than the previous two executions—to die. While on the gurney, he writhed, winced, and shuddered, and witnesses reported that he seemed to be in a great deal of pain. When a heart monitor showed he wasn't dying fast enough, he was given a second dose of one of the drugs. But as it turned out, the needle had gone through the vein and poked out the other side, delivering the drugs into soft tissue rather than the blood stream, a process that's known to cause an extremely slow and painful death. Then-Governor Jeb Bush put a halt to executions in the state for a while afterwards as a result.

In 2009, Ohio attempted to execute Romell Broom but struggled for more than two hours to find a suitable vein in which to administer the injection. He even attempted to help his executioners find an insertion spot. As the poking and prodding went on, Broom was visibly in pain. “At one point, he covered his face with both hands and appeared to be sobbing, his stomach heaving," the Columbus Dispatch reported. After two hours, the execution was halted so medical experts could figure out a better way to kill him. So far they haven't, and he remains on death row.

These sorts of incidents are one reason that defense attorneys have been arguing in court that for all its clinical veneer, lethal injection still constitutes unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Oklahoma just gave them some more ammunition for that fight, even without giving up the details of the drugs it used.

 

 

 

Does This Secret Drug Cocktail Work To Execute People? Oklahoma Will Find Out Tonight.

| Tue Apr. 29, 2014 11:11 AM EDT
The lethal injection room at California's San Quentin State Prison

Update: Oklahoma canceled the second execution after the first one went horribly awry. According to the New York Times, after he'd been declared unconscious, prisoner Clayton D. Locket twitched and gasped and said "man" and "something's wrong," before dying of a heart attack.

Tonight Oklahoma will continue the nation's ongoing experiment in executing people with untested drug combinations as it moves to kill death row inmates Clayton D. Lockett and Charles Warner using a new, secretly acquired drug cocktail.

Officials in Oklahoma and other states have resorted to these methods because they can no longer access sodium thiopental, the anesthetic traditionally used in lethal injections, and another drug used to paralyze the condemned. The lone US manufacturer quit producing sodium thiopental in 2011, and international suppliers—​​particulalry in the European Union, which opposes the death penalty on humanitarian grounds—​​have stopped exporting both drugs to the United States. This has left states like Oklahoma scrambling to find new pharmaceuticals for killing death row inmates. Some have been reduced to illegally importing the drugs, using untested combinations, or buying from unregulated compounding pharmacies, a number of which have a history of producing contaminated products.

Death row inmates and their lawyers have protested on the grounds that these untested protocols could produce a level of suffering that violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and they've sued for more information about the source and purity of the drugs. In response, several states have passed secrecy laws, allowing them to keep the names of their suppliers, and in some cases the contents of the lethal injection, under wraps. (Oklahoma is so eager to hide the source of its death drugs that it buys them with petty cash so there are no transaction records.) Death row inmates, in turn, have filed suits challenging the constitutionality of these secrecy statutes.

In February, Lockett and Warner prompted a high-profile showdown between Oklahoma officials when they sued the state, asserting that its execution protocol could inflict "severe pain" in violation of the Eighth Amendment. A lower state court found the drug secrecy law patently unconstitutional, and the state Supreme Court ultimately stayed the two men's executions until the issues were fully litigated. But Republican Gov. Mary Fallin insisted they be executed regardless of the court's ruling, prompting a political crisis. On April 23, the Oklahoma Supreme Court, whose justices are now being threatened by the Legislature with impeachment, caved and allowed the executions to move forward.

The public knows very little about the drugs that will be used to kill Lockett and Warner who stand convicted of murder. ​​Lockett shot a teenage girl, then buried her alive, while Warner raped and killed his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter in 1997. Initially, the state said it would deploy a three-drug cocktail, including the sedative pentobarbital (normally used to euthanize animals); vercuronium bromide, which paralyzes the inmate so onlookers can't tell if he's suffering; and potassium chloride, which stops the heart​. The first drug is supposed to knock out the inmate so he doesn't feel pain, but pentobarbital, which states substituted for sodium thiopental after it went off the market, works more slowly than the old drug, and wasn't tested in advance to make sure it was an appropriate substitute. Also, lawyers argue that it doesn't prevent pain during an execution. For that reason, injecting it into a conscious animal in California is actually a crime

Due to a shortages of pentobarbital and vercuronium bromide, Oklahoma planned to buy the drugs from an unnamed compounding pharmacy. This was problematic because such pharmacies are unregulated, and contaminated pentobarbital can result in excruciatingly painful deaths. (Experts say it can feel as though the insides of a person's veins are being scraped with sandpaper.) South Dakota used a compounded pentobarbital contaminated with a fungus to execute Eric Robert in 2012. During the execution, he repeatedly opened his eyes—a sign that the drug wasn't working, some experts said. Oklahoma has had similar problems. In January, it executed another man, Michael Lee Wilson, using pentobarbital from an unidentified compounding pharmacy. During the execution he sputtered, "I feel my whole body burning," another sign that the drug wasn't doing its job.

In March, Oklahoma backed away from this approach and said it would instead use one of five possible drug combinations, including a two-drug cocktail of midazolam (a sedative) and hydromorphone (a pain killer). When states first proposed using those drugs in lethal injection mixes last year, defense lawyers and medical experts warned that inmates receiving them would essentially suffocate to death. Brushing aside these concerns, in January Ohio used the drugs to execute Dennis McGuire, who gasped and convulsed horribly for more than 10 minutes before taking a record 26 minutes to die. His family, who watched in horror, is now suing over what they allege was cruel and unusual punishment.  

Oklahoma has since shifted course again and announced that it would use a three-drug combo that includes midazolam and pancuronium bromide. According to Madeline Cohen, an assistant federal public defender representing Charles Warner, the state claims that both drugs are being purchased from manufacturers rather than compounding pharmacies but wouldn't provide any other information. The only known use of this drug combination for executions was in Florida in 2013, but Florida used five times the dose of midazolam that Oklahoma plans to use, meaning Lockett and Warner will essentially be human guinea pigs. "It is an experiment, and I don’t think anybody is absolutely certain what will happen in Oklahoma," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Dieter adds that we'll never know whether the drugs worked properly or caused needlessly painful deaths because the people who could tell us will be dead.

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