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USA: Another ‘botched’ execution underscores call to abolish death penalty

30th April 2014, 16:44:35 UTC

Last night’s “botched” execution in Oklahoma provides yet another stark reason why authorities across the USA should impose an immediate moratorium on judicial killing and work for abolition of this inescapably cruel punishment, Amnesty International said today.

Witnesses have described how the condemned man, Clayton Lockett, began to gasp and writhe after he had been declared unconscious and when the second and third drugs began to be administered.

At that stage, about 16 minutes after the lethal injection process had begun, officials drew a curtain across the viewing window, preventing witnesses from seeing what was happening. Almost half an hour later, Clayton Lockett was pronounced dead of a heart attack.

A second execution scheduled for the same evening, of Charles Warner, was stayed.

“What happened last night to Clayton Lockett is shocking in anyone’s book. But this is far from the first ‘botched execution’ in the USA, whether by electrocution, asphyxiation, or lethal injection using the ‘traditional’ three-drug protocol,” said Rob Freer, Amnesty International researcher on the USA, citing more than three dozen executions reported to have gone awry.

What happened last night to Clayton Lockett is shocking in anyone’s book. But this is far from the first 'botched execution' in the USA, whether by electrocution, asphyxiation, or lethal injection using the ‘traditional’ three-drug protocol

Rob Freer, Amnesty International USA

The sole US manufacturer of sodium thiopental, one of the drugs traditionally used in US lethal injections, withdrew from the market in early 2011 and the European Commission tightened its regulations on the trade of such substances for use in capital punishment.

As a result, the USA’s death penalty states have sought alternative sources for lethal injections drugs and have amended their execution protocols so as to be able to continue this state-sanctioned killing.

“If the sort of tenacity shown by authorities pursuing the death penalty were to be turned to bringing their country into line with the global abolitionist trend, then we would see rapid progress on this fundamental human rights issue in the USA,” Rob Freer added.

“Instead, the ugly history of US executions has continued well into the 21st century even as country after country has stopped this practice.”

Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner had unsuccessfully challenged an Oklahoma state law that blocks officials from revealing the identities of those involved in administering executions as well as of those who supply the drugs or equipment used.

“Time after time, we have seen how government secrecy can be the enemy of respect for human rights. But what also must not be forgotten in all of this is that, even if executions go according to plan, the death penalty remains a deeply flawed exercise in state power. It is irrevocable in outcome, inconsistent and discriminatory in application, and incompatible with basic human rights principles,” said Rob Freer.

As a number of states in the USA have abolished the death penalty in recent years, bringing the total to 18, Amnesty International renews its call on authorities across the country – whether at federal, state or local level – to seize the opportunity provided by the problems in sourcing lethal injection drugs to work against the death penalty, rather than trying to fix the unfixable.

Since judicial killing in the USA resumed on 17 January 1977, US executioners have killed nearly 1,400 men and women – 90 per cent through lethal injections. Other methods used have been gas, hanging, electricity and firing squad.

Until around 2010, most of the USA’s death penalty states employed three-drug lethal injection protocols. Since the sole US manufacturer of sodium thiopental, one of the drugs used in this combination, suspended production, and in early 2011 withdrew from the market altogether, the USA’s death penalty states have turned to each other, to domestic “compounding pharmacies” (used in the USA to meet prescription needs of individual patients), to sources overseas, and to the federal government, to seek solutions.

In November 2010, it was first learned that a small company based in London in the UK had supplied sodium thiopental to the state of Arizona where it was used to execute Jeffery Landrigan on 26 October. Amnesty International and Reprieve called on the UK government to prohibit the export of the drug from the UK where it was for use in executions.

Amnesty International worked with a coalition of non-governmental organisations to call on the European Commission to amend regulations on the international trade in certain equipment to include drugs used in the lethal injection protocol and to introduce a “torture-death penalty end use clause”, to enable EU states to refuse export licenses for items that clearly have no practical use other than for the purposes of capital punishment; or where there are reasonable grounds to believe that such items would be used for the purposes of capital punishment.

In 2013 the US states of Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina and Ohio amended their executions procedures to include a one-drug protocol and/or allow to change the chemicals used in the executions.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime, the culpability of the condemned, or the method chosen by the state to carry out the execution.