US President Barack Obama has asked for a review of the botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate which he said he found “deeply troubling”.
Mr Obama said the case of Clayton Lockett’s execution highlighted significant problems with the death penalty.
The execution has drawn intense scrutiny to the US death penalty system from around the world. On Tuesday the United Nations human rights office in Geneva said Lockett’s execution could amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international human rights law.
Lockett convulsed violently during the execution and tried to lift his head after a doctor declared him unconscious. He later died of an apparent heart attack. It later emerged that some of the drugs used in Lockett’s execution did not enter his system because the vein they were injected into collapsed, and the failure was not noticed for 21 minutes.
Mr Obama told a news conference that he believes the death penalty is merited in some cases and that Lockett’s crimes were heinous. But he said the penalty’s application in the US has problems, including racial bias and the eventual exoneration of some death row inmates.
He is asking Attorney General Eric Holder for an analysis of the death penalty’s application.
A letter by written by the state’s prison chief Robert Patton to the state’s governor detailing Lockett’s last day described how medical officials tried for nearly an hour to find a vein in Lockett’s arms, legs and neck before finally inserting an IV line into his groin.
By the time a doctor lifted a sheet covering the inmate and noticed the line had become dislodged from the vein, all of the execution drugs had been administered and there was not another suitable vein, the report said.
“The drugs had either absorbed into tissue, leaked out or both,” Mr Patton wrote. “The director asked the following question: ’Have enough drugs been administered to cause death?’. The doctor responded, ’No’.”
At that time, Mr Patton halted the Tuesday night execution, but Lockett was pronounced dead of a heart attack 10 minutes later.
Oklahoma’s execution rules call for medical personnel to immediately give emergency aid if a stay is granted while the lethal drugs are being administered, but it is not clear if that happened. The report does not say what occurred from when Mr Patton called off the execution at 6.56pm to Lockett being pronounced dead at 7.06pm.
A United Nations human rights office spokesman, Rupert Colville, said it was “the second case of apparent extreme suffering caused by malfunctioning lethal injections” reported in the United States this year, after Dennis McGuire’s execution in Ohio on January 16 with an allegedly untested combination of drugs.
States have been scrambling to find new sources of drugs as several pharmaceutical companies, many based in Europe, have stopped selling to US prisons and corrections departments that conduct executions.
Mr Colville told reporters that “the apparent cruelty involved in these recent executions simply reinforces the argument that authorities across the United States should impose an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty and work for abolition of this cruel and inhuman practice”.
The Oklahoma report also indicated that on Lockett’s last morning, he fought with guards who attempted to remove him from his cell and that they shocked him with a stun gun. After he was taken to a prison infirmary, a self-inflicted cut was found on Lockett’s arm that was determined not to require stitches. The report also notes that Lockett refused food at breakfast and lunch.
Madeline Cohen, a lawyer for inmate Charles Warner, who had been scheduled to be executed two hours after Lockett, said Oklahoma was revealing information about the events “in a chaotic manner”.
Warner’s execution was initially rescheduled for May 13. Mr Patton called for an indefinite stay, something Ms Cohen said she agreed was necessary.
Governor Mary Fallin, who has ordered one of her cabinet members to investigate the botched execution, said she was willing to issue a 60-day stay for Warner, the longest allowed under state law, if needed to complete the inquiry.
“If it does require more time, then yes, I think they should take more time,” Ms Fallin said. “We need to get it right.”
If 60 days is not adequate, Mr Holder said he would request an additional stay from the courts to ensure no executions are carried out until the review is complete.
Later Oklahoma’s attorney general’s office said drugs previously readied for Warner’s execution will be tested as part of an investigation into Lockett’s death.
Assistant Attorney General Kindanne Jones said the Department of Corrections saved the lethal drugs set aside for Warner’s execution, which was stayed for two weeks.
Mr Jones said attorneys for Lockett and Warner may have access to the drugs if any are left over after the state’s analysis is complete. Before Lockett’s execution, the state had refused to provide the source of the execution drugs, citing state law that allows such details to remain confidential.