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The Death Penalty and the American Mind

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Shortly after five o’clock in the morning on April 29th, a prison SWAT team arrives at Clayton Lockett’s cell on death row in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlaster, the very prison from which Tom Joad was released in the opening pages of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  The burly guards unlock Lockett’s door and order him to the ground to be cuffed and shackled for a trip to the prison infirmary, where the prisoner is to be x-rayed prior to his execution by lethal injection. Lockett, who has been incarcerated for fourteen years, largely in solitary confinement, refuses to comply.

As the SWAT team prepares to forcibly enter Lockett’s cell, the prisoner jabs his wrist with a crudely-fashioned tool. The guards storm the cell and repeatedly taser Lockett as his body spasms on the floor. Incapacitated by the jolts of electricity, Lockett is restrained and hauled to the prison medical unit, where he is left in a cell, bleeding and semi-conscious for an hour and 15 minutes, before his wounds are examined by a physician’s assistant.

The raid on Lockett’s cell is witnessed by Charles Warner. Warner is locked in the adjacent cell, awaiting his own execution, scheduled for two hours after Lockett has been put to death. That April night was meant to be a macabre double-header, staged by the state’s Governor Mary Fallin, whose neck is usually adorned by a necklace with a dangling golden cross. Fallin, who had brazenly defied two court injunctions halting the executions, was eager to show the nation the cheerless efficiency of Oklahoma’s death machine in the face of lingering questions over the efficacy of its experimental cocktail of lethal drugs.

For the next 10 hours, Clayton Lockett is kept shackled in an observation cell. Still dazed and bleeding, Lockett refuses food and an opportunity to visit with his attorneys.

At 4:10 pm, armed guards once again enter his cell and march him to the shower in the prison’s H-Unit. Showing a perverse sense of historical irony, Oklahoma officials use the prison showers as the holding cell for the execution chamber. Thirty minutes later, “mental health personnel” enter the room and talk with Lockett for 10 minutes. No mention is made in the post-execution documents of what these prison shrinks concluded about the mental state of a man who is only minutes away from being put to death.

Ten minutes later, the prison’s new warden Anita Trammell  enters the shower cell and, surrounded by prison guards, leads Lockett into the execution chamber. At 5:22 PM, guards strap Clayton Lockett to the death table. Five minutes later a phlebotomist appears and begins probing Lockett’s veins for the best place to insert an IV. The phlebotomist is not a doctor, but a technician specializing in the drawing of blood. In Oklahoma, as in most states, phlebotomists do not need to be licensed and their training, such as it is, is often done in online courses.

The prison’s blood man pokes at the veins in Lockett’s arms and legs, without finding a “viable insertion point.” Next he pricks both of the condemned man’s feet and then his neck, without locating a willing vein. Finally, the technician “went to the groin area” and at 6:18, after 50 minutes of repeated poking and prodding, an IV is jabbed into a vein in Lockett’s groin. A sheet is draped over the needle and tubes to “prevent witnesses” from viewing Lockett’s genitals and the phlebotomist leaves the killing chamber.

At 6:23, Warden Tramell is ordered to begin the execution by Robert Patton, director of Oklahoma’s Department of Corrrections. The shades to the execution chamber are raised. In front of a gallery of witnesses, Trammell asks Lockett if he wants to make a final statement. Lockett declines. Then Midazolam, a sedative meant to knock Lockett out, begins to flow through the tube and into his bloodstream. Ten minutes later a doctor determines that Lockett is unconscious and two killing drugs are pumped into his system: vercuronium bromide, a suffocating agent, and potassium chloride, which is meant to paralyze the heart

Within seconds, Lockett, who is supposed to be unconscious, begins to shake and gasp. In agonizing pain, he attempts to rise up and screams out: “Oh, man!” The shades are suddenly lowered and over the next crucial 12 minutes the attending physician examines Lockett and determines that the his vein had ruptured and the “line had blown.”

At 6:56, the prison director Patton calls off the execution. Lockett is now unconscious and has a faint pulse. No attempt is made to revive him. At 7:06, the death room doctor pronounces Lockett dead. The cause of death is recorded as heart failure.

These gruesome events prompted a national uproar for a few days and a rare scolding from the President, who, naturally, called for a review. But why? Yes, Lockett’s execution was badly botched. But it was not all that different than the 1348 executions that had preceded it since the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1976. The outrage was focused on the incompetence of the execution, rather than the corrupt and morally repugnant system itself.

Gov. Fallin’s mistake, as she might have learned had she fully absorbed her Aeschylus, was her hubris. Her fanatical grandstanding at the chemical gallows only drew unwelcome attention to a deed most Americans support (60 percent in a post-Lockett poll), but don’t really care to know too much about.

As Obama the drone warrior could have advised her, the death industry feeds on silence and secrecy. When Clayton Lockett resisted those guards in his cell, the veil began to lift on the hideous machinery of death. Given a view to a kill, many Americans seemed momentarily unnerved by the casual savagery being done in their name. Americans want their killing done quick and clean–so that they can call it humane.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray) will be published in June by CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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