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Troubling Oklahoma Execution Sparks Death Penalty Debate


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to start the program today talking about the death penalty. You might have heard by now about Clayton Lockett. He was convicted of rape and murder in Oklahoma and he was scheduled to die from a lethal injection earlier this week.

But witnesses say that execution went horribly wrong. Our colleagues at Morning Edition interviewed a reporter who saw it happen. And I have to warn you that what she saw might be difficult for some to hear. Here's the Tulsa World's Ziva Branstetter.

ZIVA BRANSTETTER: At about 6:36 p.m. and for the next three minutes, Lockett began writhing and kicking his legs, mumbling things that we couldn't understand. He, several times, lifted his head and shoulders entirely up off the gurney.

His body was secure to the gurney so, you know, obviously he couldn't get out up but he certainly looked like he was trying to get up. He was rolling his head from side-to-side. And at 6:38, it sounded like he said man, and continued to lift his head up.

MARTIN: Lockett eventually died almost half an hour later from an apparent heart attack. Oklahoma's governor has suspended executions until a review is finished there. But the case is bringing up questions across the country about how the death penalty is administered. Joining us now to talk about this is Wayne Slater. He's senior political writer at The Dallas Morning News. And he's with us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Wayne, thanks so much for joining us.

WAYNE SLATER: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Karen Kasler. She's the Statehouse bureau chief for Ohio Public Radio and television. She's reported on a previous execution in Ohio that has the state rethinking its execution drug formula, that execution also did not proceed as planned. Karen, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us as well.

KAREN KASLER: I'm very happy to be here. Thanks.

MARTIN: Wayne - and I'm going to start with you because Texas, by far, surpasses other states when it comes to executions - with Oklahoma right next door. I wanted to ask how or whether people in Texas are responding to events in Oklahoma.

SLATER: They certainly are. But it's really kind of two different responses. On the one hand, a former chairman of the criminal justice system, a former Republican appointee, a former Democratic governor, Mark White - both have talked about ending the death penalty in Texas. Moreover, if you look at what's happened in this state since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 - the number of executions rose substantially but has begun to fall for a couple of different reasons.

But having said that - and so there are a lot of people who are raising concerns about the death penalty. But having said that, politically it is a toxic matter to even suggest here in Texas today that we ought to do something or do away with the death penalty. Both the Democrat and Republican candidates for governor both say they support it - the current governor, others have both said that they're still behind the death penalty. Folks at the criminal justice system currently say that we're looking at our protocols and we don't see any reason to change anything. Next execution in Texas is set for May 13.

MARTIN: Just very briefly, Wayne, on the protocol itself - does Texas use the same protocol that Oklahoma was using or is it different? How did they respond to the specific facts of this case?

SLATER: It is different. And the attorney general who's running for governor right now made that point in the last 24 hours. We don't use a cocktail. We don't use three separate drugs. We do use lethal injection - the method of lethal injection, but a single drug, pentobarbital - a heavy dose of that.

So the argument by folks here in Texas who support continuation of the death penalty - and that pretty much is the official class here - is that our approach is different, we're going to continue - we don't have any problem with what we have done and intend to continue doing what we have been doing.

MARTIN: Wayne, I'm going to ask you to stand by and hear more about what the broader political debate is. But then I want - first, I want to turn to Karen. You know, Karen, there was a similar situation, as I understand it, in January when Dennis McGuire was executed. Could you just tell us what happened there?

KASLER: Sure. That was a situation where Ohio was trying the first time ever - anywhere - a mixture of two drugs. We had been using pentobarbital, like was used in Texas, but Ohio ran out and couldn't find the appropriate compounding pharmacy to mix it up apparently. And so the state went to the second protocol in it's whole way of doing executions, which was an injection of a sedative - midazolam, which is the same sedative that was used in Oklahoma. And then an injection of hydromorphone, which is an opioid. And so what happened in this execution - you had veteran witnesses who said it took a lot longer - it took almost 20 minutes longer than normal.

And during this execution, Dennis McGuire appeared to be gasping and snorting and almost like he was hurting for air. And so there was a real concern that there was a problem here. His family filed a lawsuit against the state. Just this week, the state put out a review of that execution saying they don't feel that McGuire was in any pain, that he was out the whole time, that he didn't have this phenomenon called air hunger.

He was OK and therefore the execution was constitutional. And so the state plans to continue on with the same two drug mixture, but the state also plans to increase its dosage - not to the level where Oklahoma did. Oklahoma used 500 milligrams of the midazolam - the sedative - Ohio plans to use 50 milligrams and then follow it up with an ejection of hydromorphone. And they feel that that will take care a lot of the problems here.

MARTIN: You mentioned that his family filed suit saying that they felt that he was in pain - have any of these legal issues persisted? Have any - have his lawyers or his family representatives been able to pursue any of their legal objections? And I think for people who aren't aware - I mean, the basic issue here is a constitutional bar against cruel and unusual punishment, correct?

KASLER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So the question is does it meet that standard? So have any of those legal issues gone forward, Karen?

KASLER: No. In fact, the death penalty has been under lawsuit in Ohio for many, many years. This is just one of many actions that have been taken. And the family of Dennis McGuire say they plan to continue on with this lawsuit even though the state has put out its review saying that it feels that the execution was humane and therefore constitutional.

There have been no court dates set or anything like that. But what we have right now is four executions scheduled in Ohio for later on this year. The upcoming execution for may was actually just commuted to life in prison because of other issues not related to the execution process.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are examining the death penalty in this country in the wake of an execution in Oklahoma earlier this week that did not go as planned. Joining us are Karen Kasler, Statehouse bureau chief in Ohio, which had a similar circumstance earlier in the year, and, in fact, has had previous executions that were deemed botched.

Also joining us Wayne Slater, senior political writer at the Dallas Morning News. So, Wayne, you know, each of you mentioned that there is a debate, and yet the issue seems to still be untouchable, right? So, Wayne, can you talk a little bit, you know, about that? I mean, so if there is a debate, you know, who's having it?

SLATER: Yeah, it's interesting. Politically, the politics of the death penalty - certainly in recent decades, if not forever - in Texas is - it pretty much concludes around the idea that the death penalty is OK, that a majority of Texans support it. I can remember when George Bush was governor and Carla Faye Tucker, who was famously an ax murderer who turned her life around in prison, became a born-again Christian, was set to be executed. The pope intervened, as often the Vatican does. Billy Graham intervened. Other people intervened asking that her execution be - that she be commuted. Bush did not do that.

Politically, it was the wrong thing - I think he felt - the wrong thing morally, at least in his mind, in terms of the victims. Rick Perry went ahead with an execution more recently of a Mexican national despite appeal - international appeals. In 1990 in Texas, when the governor's race was on, Ann Richards was running in the Democratic primary against two other folks, and the death penalty was an issue. Ann Richards was for the death penalty. Her Democratic opponent who was the attorney general put an ad up saying how he had been actively involved in participating in the death penalty.

He had gone to Huntsville for executions. Former Governor Mark White - in those days, a supporter of the death penalty - put up an ad in which he walked among the large portraits of the men who had been executed under his tenure. So it remains, politically, a very strong thing. And one other quick point. Some years ago there was a book published called "The Rope, The Chair And The Needle." It was an examination of the death penalty in Texas.

And three scholars concluded that part of what's happening here in Texas and in many Confederate states - many of the former Confederate states, many of the states in the South is that there is a cultural tradition, a Southern, cultural tradition of exclusion, a sort of demonizing of the other that politically makes this much more acceptable in a conservative state. So the politics here is to stay with the death penalty. And any politician who steps out from that risks their political future.

MARTIN: So, Karen, a little different in Ohio in the way the debate ensues. Could you talk a little bit about that? We have a minute and a half. I don't know if they have time to get all into the nuances, but if you could try.

KASLER: Sure. Ohio still favors the death penalty, at least when you look at polls. But what we have that's interesting that's happening here is our previous governor Ted Strickland, who was a Democrat, and our current governor, John Kasich, a conservative Republican, they've each now granted reprieves to five death-row inmates, which this kind of unusual. You would expect the Democrat maybe to be a little bit more sympathetic, the Republican to be a little bit less so. But we've had at least - we've had five on each side.

And so that kind of demonstrates that there is a little bit of a split here. Ohioans still seem to favor it. But we also have a lot of high-profile Ohioans who have been talking out against the death penalty and the way it is actually implemented in Ohio. And that includes the Republican state senator who created the law that puts the death penalty on the books in Ohio. He's now a Justice, Paul Pfeifer of the Ohio Supreme Court.

And he said that he feels that the law needs to be dramatically changed because it's almost like a death lottery. Depending on where you're charged, that really makes more of a difference than the crime that you're committing.

MARTIN: So is it the actual administration of the penalty itself is really not what's driving this? It just - it's really more the front end of the process, if I can put it that way? Is that it?

KASLER: Well, it's the front end - it's the front end and the back end because you do have - as you mentioned, we've had three to four botched executions depending on how you want to count it. We had one gentleman survive his execution. So that's why I say three to four. So those sort of high-profile situations have certainly brought out some headlines. But then you've also got the other concerns about how it's actually - how the sentences are actually handed out.

MARTIN: That was Karen Kasler, Statehouse bureau chief for Ohio Public Radio and television. Also joining us, Wayne Slater, senior political writer at the Dallas Morning News. Thank you both so much for joining us.

SLATER: Good to be with you.

KASLER: Glad to be here. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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