Littwin: The rush to more botched executions

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]OW we can understand why John Hickenlooper decided to grant Nathan Dunlap his temporary reprieve last year.

It wasn’t for Dunlap, the multiple murderer who had committed crimes worthy of the worst punishment. The temporary reprieve was for the rest of us.

What happened in Oklahoma — the horribly botched execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett — showed why we shouldn’t want any part of that in Colorado, which hasn’t executed anyone since 1997.

In Oklahoma, state-sanctioned killing would become state-enabled barbarism. And it was Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin who, unlike Hickenlooper, had pushed — and pushed hard — to make sure the execution took place.

[pullquote]It’s no wonder all of the countries in Europe and in the Western Hemisphere have abandoned the death penalty, except the United States. We remain alongside China and Iran and the others struggling to get out of the 16th century.[/pullquote]

She didn’t slide the needle into the vein, which, it turned out, would be located in Lockett’s groin — because they couldn’t find a suitable vein in his arms or legs. But she might as well have. She fought the courts that had ruled against the execution. She pushed the execution even though they were using a cocktail of untested drugs. She went ahead even though some had warned there was a distinct chance of failure.

The failure was clear enough when Lockett began writhing in pain and calling out. Officials closed the curtains so the witnesses couldn’t see more. Later, officials would say a vein had been “blown” and that the drugs were leaking. It had all gone so wrong, in fact, that the execution was called off in mid-procedure. And yet 10 minutes after the execution had supposedly ended, Lockett died of a heart attack. Or was it torture?

And as if the day hadn’t gone sufficiently wrong, it turned out that Lockett had been Tasered when he resisted leaving his cell in order to be X-rayed prior to his execution.

You don’t have to feel sorry for Lockett. He was on death row because, in a robbery gone wrong, he had kidnapped and shot a 19-year-old woman and then had her buried alive in a ditch.

But you do have to wonder how Oklahoma — which is the leader in per-capita executions — could plan an execution that would turn into the new definition of cruel and unusual punishment. Fallin was forced to issue a stay on the planned second execution for all of two weeks, but it will be much longer than that before the state-sanction death machine is rolling again.

The story begins not with the night of the botched execution, though, but with the choice to use untested lethal drugs. Lockett and Charles Warner, both convicted killers scheduled to be executed, had sued to learn the source of the drug cocktail. Oklahoma, like many states, doesn’t release such information. Not surprisingly, secrecy is a major piece of the death penalty culture. Most large drug makers have already dropped out of the execution business. And so many states have turned to compound makers, which are unregulated.

But death-busy states like Oklahoma can’t seem to find enough of the stuff, leading to the obvious question: Just how hard should a state have to work to kill its killers?

It was made that much harder when a district judge agreed with Lockett and Warner that the state must reveal the source of the lethal drugs. The case made its way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling. But Gov. Fallin wouldn’t accept the court’s decision, saying it didn’t have jurisdiction and that she planned to go ahead with the executions anyway.

This seemed outrageous even in Oklahoma, where it looked like a constitutional crisis might be underway. But after a few state legislators threatened impeachment, the court reversed itself. And farce would soon meet tragedy head-on.

The most compelling argument for the death penalty is nearly always the crime itself. Warner, who was also supposed to die that night, had raped and killed an infant. They invented the word “heinous” for crimes like that.

But the most compelling arguments against the death penalty would include nearly everything else, starting with the fact that it’s nearly impossible to administer the punishment equitably. Convicted murderers are sentenced to die disproportionately according to race, gender, geography, the ability to hire a good lawyer, how they scored on an IQ test.

And then there are those who have been wrongly convicted. A new study by the Academy of Sciences predicts that 4 percent of people on death row are innocent. The Death Penalty Information Center lists 144 prisoners on death row who have been exonerated since 1973.

It’s no wonder that all European countries and all in the Western Hemisphere — except the United States — have abandoned the death penalty. Instead, we remain alongside China and Iran and the others struggling to get out of the 16th century.

It’s no wonder that some governors, like Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon, would say: “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.”

Hickenlooper, facing the prospect of an execution, delayed Dunlap’s indefinitely. In announcing his decision, he spoke of the “inherent inequity” in the system. He would say, “Part of the question was around this case, but also around the death penalty. Is it just and moral? We make a decision to take this person’s life. Is it a benefit to the world?”

If you oppose the death penalty, the question was whether Hickenlooper had gone far enough. But politically, it was clear the risk he was taking. Polls show a majority of Coloradans favor the death penalty. And each of his Republican opponents have promised, if elected, to see Dunlap executed as quickly as possible.

You wonder if they would consult Mary Fallin on how to make it happen.

[ Image via Marcelo Montecino. “Santiago, Chile, 1955. An old AP photo I bought on Ebay. Notice the squad is wearing tennis shoes so that the condemned do not know when they come out. I’m sure it’s much better that way.” ]


  1. Governor Fallin should be as ashamed of her actions as a human can be. In fact, she should be absolutely appalled by them. I’m as disgusted as I can possibly be. This woman played as bloodthirsty a card game as she could, all so she could play MURDERESS. To defy the supreme court of your state is a pretty ARROGANT thing to do. And all so she could MURDER someone.

    The death penalty is nothing but a sorry excuse for revenge. There is NO moral justification for continuing this barbaric practice. Mistakes are made, and those can NEVER be redressed. It makes the state just as much a murderer as those it kills. And the penalty itself is used FAR more for minorities than whites, making it an “unusual” punishment according to the constitution.

    This country needs to be BETTER than this, and the Governor of OK needs to resign in shame and self disgust. She acted in the worst possible way, and for the worst of all motives. It’s time we joined the rest of the civilized world in the 21st century and did away with this nonsense.

  2. Mr. Littwin,

    Did you support President Obama’s sanctioning of the killing of Osama bin Laden?

  3. Could the Colorado Independent please do something about the spammers here? Two of the comments here are OBVIOUSLY nothing but spam, and that is an insult to everyone reading. And such lousy spam at that. Stun guns? PLEASE!

    And to the spammer, please feel free to drop off the web entirely. Some of us sure won’t miss your crappy business practices. I hope you don’t get a single hit from ANYONE on this site.

  4. Surprise surprise. Mr Lopez acknowledges President Obama’s success in making the decision to get Bin Laden.

    For all Mr Lopez’s hallucinations you’d think he would have the common sense to ask a more lucid question.

  5. ScreenSniffer,

    For a minute I thought this was just another one of those spam specials.

    I don’t know how I could have made that mistake because the spam specials are much better written.

    Before I forget, Happy Mothers Day!

    Check out Mr. Littwin’s April 29th column. 22 comments and I’m, directly or indirectly, responsible for 20 of them.

    That’s epic, dude!!

    “The White House says it has surpassed its goal for people enrolled in Obamacare. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you make something mandatory and fine people if they don’t do it and then keep extending the deadline for months. It’s like a Cinderella story. It’s just a beautiful thing. You make everyone do it. If you still haven’t enrolled, you might have to pay a penalty called the ‘Individual Shared Responsibility Payment,’ which is 1 percent of your salary. Then Americans said, ‘hey, good thing I don’t have a job.”
    Jimmy Fallon
    Memorial Day – May 26, 2014
    And I’m proud to be an American
    Where at least I know I’m free
    And I won’t forget the men who died
    Who gave that right to me
    Lee Greenwood

  6. Don,
    Is that supposed to be a serious question? I’m hopeful that you don’t think the two deaths are in any way analogous.

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