TIME executions

Oklahoma Inmate Felt ‘Liquid Fire’ During Execution, Doctor Says

Clayton Lockett
Doctors testified on Wednesday that Clayton Lockett, a death row inmate seen here in this June 29, 2011, file photo, likely suffered during his prolonged execution on April 29, 2014. AP

Expert says Clayton Lockett likely suffered on the execution table

An Oklahoma inmate whose prolonged execution triggered a statewide moratorium on executions likely suffered excruciating pain akin to “liquid fire” throughout his lethal injection last April.

That’s how one doctor assessed what Clayton Lockett experienced as he was put to death, in a federal court hearing Wednesday that will determine whether the state can once again resume executions in January.

Lockett, a convicted murderer who shot a 19-year-old woman and had her buried alive, was put to death with a three-drug combination on April 29. He reportedly writhed on the execution table and appeared to speak and regain consciousness during the process.

Since then, several grisly details have emerged about what went wrong, problems that likely arose due to poorly trained executioners and the use of a sedative that may not adequately put inmates to sleep.

(MORE: Report: Executioner Errors Led to Botched Execution)

On Wednesday, anesthesiologist David Lubarsky testified that midazolam, a sedative increasingly used by states as other drug sources have dried up, should not be used on inmates because it doesn’t render them fully unconscious. Lubarsky said the injection of vecuronium bromide, a muscle relaxer, would’ve likely felt like “liquid fire” because Lockett wasn’t properly knocked out.

Joseph Cohen, a forensic pathologist hired by Lockett’s lawyers to perform an autopsy following the lethal injection, also testified that he believed Lockett was conscious during the execution and confirmed that he found multiple puncture wounds on Lockett’s body where executioners attempted to insert IV lines.

Death row inmates in Oklahoma are seeking a federal court ruling to delay their upcoming executions, arguing in part that the state’s three-drug protocol used on Lockett violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Oklahoma’s next execution is scheduled for Jan. 15, 2015.

TIME Capital Punishment

U.S. Executions Reach a 20-Year Low

An independent autopsy of death row inmate Clayton Lockett, who was executed in April at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., ruled that Lockett died as a result from the drugs administered to him by prison officials and not from a heart attack. AP

It has been a tortured year for capital punishment in the U.S., with multiple botched executions, last-minute stays, and exonerations raising questions about the nation's ability to constitutionally met out the punishment

Amidst a nationwide reflection on the future of the death penalty in the U.S., the nation in 2014 reached a 20-year low in carried-out executions, the Death Penalty Information Center said in its annual report.

Seven states executed 35 people this year, the lowest number since 1994, said the think tank, which does not have a position on whether capital punishment should be banned. The number of executed prisoners nationwide has been in decline since 1999, when 98 death sentences were carried out.

Meanwhile, the number of people sentenced to death also dropped to a 40-year low of 72 people, the report found. There are 30 executions scheduled for 2015.

The center said that three botched executions, including the 43-minute ordeal of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, where all executions are now on hiatus, prompted a national re-examination of the death penalty and led to delays. In each of those bungled executions, the state relied on lethal injection drugs it sourced from providers it refused to name, as well as mixed in untested cocktails, according to the report.

Also at issue in a re-evaluation of capital punishment are inexact or violated protocols for measuring prisoners’ mental competence and eligibility for execution, as well as the threat of executing an innocent person, the center said. Seven death row inmates were exonerated this year, according to the center.

TIME justice

Execution Set for Man Whose Drunk Lawyer Botched His Defense

Robert Wayne Holsey
Convicted murderer Robert Wayne Holsey who is scheduled to be executed on Dec. 9, 2014. Georgia Department of Corrections/AP

His attorney drank a quart of vodka a night

In 1997, Andy Prince’s life was in a downward spiral. The Georgia attorney was drinking a quart of vodka a night. He stole $100,000 from a client. He was arrested for disorderly conduct after threatening to shoot his neighbors. But none of that prevented him from representing Robert Wayne Holsey, a Georgia man convicted of shooting a deputy sheriff and scheduled to die this week thanks to what Holsey’s current lawyers describe as unthinkable and almost criminally poor legal representation.

On Dec. 17, 1995, Holsey shot and killed Baldwin County Sheriff’s Deputy Will Robinson in Milledgeville, Ga., after the officer pulled Holsey over for a suspected robbery. At the time, Georgia had no public defender office, leaving it up to judges to appoint a lawyer, often resorting to attorneys they knew personally. In this case, Prince was chosen to defend Holsey.

MORE: Ohio looks to shield lethal injection drugmakers

“When [Prince] took on Holsey’s case, he was in a lot of trouble,” said attorney Brian Kammer, the director of the Georgia Resource Center who is currently representing Holsey. “He was barely able to represent him. He was a chronic heavy drinker, an alcoholic. And it impacted his performance.”

Kammer says that in Holsey’s sentencing phase, Prince barely prepared the basis for why his client should be spared the death sentence. At the time, Holsey’s IQ was about 70, meaning by some standards he was intellectually disabled. Prince provided little evidence in court to bolster that defense and largely failed to provide the jury with information about Holsey’s childhood, which was rife with abuse and could have persuaded jurors to spare his life. A jury sentenced Holsey to death in 1997.

In the months and years following the trial, Prince was disbarred, sentenced to 10 years for stealing client money and later testified that he shouldn’t have been representing Holsey in the first place.

MORE: Missouri just tied its lethal injection record)

Yet the death sentence remains. While Holsey is set to die by lethal injection on Tuesday, his lawyers are working to halt his execution. On Monday, Kammer presented Holsey’s case to Georgia’s five-member clemency board, arguing that Georgia’s standard for determining intellectual disability is unconstitutional, a strict standard that requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that it was unconstitutional to automatically prohibit anyone with an IQ of 70 or above from being considered mentally disabled. The Florida law initially had a strict cutoff that made those with an IQ of 70 or above eligible for the death penalty.

The parole panel, however, denied clemency on Monday, and the Georgia Supreme Court decided against a stay of execution in a 5-2 vote on Tuesday. Holsey’s lawyers have presented a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court to halt the execution, scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday.

TIME China

China Sets Deadline to Stop Taking Organs From Executed Prisoners

Starting next month, China will end its ethically unsettling reliance on transplant organs culled from its condemned prisoners, state media said

China will no longer harvest transplant organs from executed prisoners from the start of 2015, a decision praised as ethical but which renews questions about where the world’s most populous nation will find much needed organs.

State-run newspaper China Daily says the Chinese government will end the globally criticized practice of taking organs from its condemned population by Jan. 1.

China is the only country to as a rule take organs from executed people, a practice that has led to allegations that prisoners and their families are coerced into signing off on the donations and that demand for more organs could translate into more death sentences.

China carefully guards the number of people it executes as a state secret, but U.S.-based human-rights group Dui Hua estimates that the Chinese state killed about 2,400 people last year, an enormous drop from around 12,000 people in 2002 and marking a continuous decline in executions over the past decade.

Chinese supplies of transplant organs are far short of the nation’s needs, partly because of traditional burial procedures, as well as to public suspicion that organ waiting lists are holding pens for those who cannot pay their way out of them, Huang Jiefu, China’s Vice Minister of Health, was quoted in local press as saying. State officials said in 2011 that condemned prisoners provided about 64% of the nation’s transplant-organ supplies.

Huang told local media that about 300,000 patients are annually wait-listed in China for an organ donation that, ultimately, only about 10,000 of them receive. Just 1,500 organs have been donated so far this year, he said. The paucity of donated organs has fueled a black-market organ trade that has also raised considerable ethical questions.

In the U.S., which has a population about a quarter of China, 9,512 people donated organs in the first half of this year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Some 120,000 people in the U.S. are still awaiting organs.

TIME Crime

Texas Plans to Execute a Schizophrenic Man Who Tried to Subpoena Jesus

Scott Panetti
In this Nov. 19, 1999 file photo, Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti talks during a prison interview in Huntsville, Texas, where he is on death row for the 1992 murder of his wife's parents. Panetti's execution is set for Dec. 3, 2014. Scott Coomer—AP

Scott Panetti, who is scheduled to die Wednesday, has a long history of severe mental illness

In 1992, Scott Panetti shaved his head, dressed himself in camo and fatally shot his in-laws in front of his wife and daughter. Afterward, he put on a suit and surrendered to police.

At his trial, Panetti wore a cowboy costume and acted as his own lawyer, waiving his right to counsel. He applied for 200 subpoenas that included John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ. He asked prospective jurors whether they had any Indian blood in them. His opening statement referenced demons. And he referred to himself as Sergeant Iron Horse when he confessed to killing his wife’s parents. It wasn’t Scott who killed them, he said. It was Sarge.

Panetti’s defense appeared to be that of a seriously ill man. And by most accounts, he was. First diagnosed with early schizophrenia in 1978, Panetti had been in and out of a dozen mental hospitals over 14 years, regularly determined to have paranoia, depression, delusions and hallucinations and eventually deemed disabled by the Social Security Administration, qualifying him for monthly benefits before he turned 30. Since that first diagnosis, Panetti came to see life as a cosmic battle between good and evil, one in which he—or Sarge, or the other voices in his head—played a role.

In one instance, Panetti’s first wife came home to find that he had buried his furniture in the front yard because he believed he needed to purge Satan from the objects. In an affidavit, she said she believed her husband should be involuntarily committed and that he had become “obsessed with the idea that the devil was in our house.” Panetti’s explanation for killing the parents of his second wife was similar, according to his lawyers and court documents: the shootings were “Sarge’s” attempt to get rid of the devil he believed was inside his in-laws.

(MORE: Ohio Looks to Shield Lethal Injection Drugmakers)

In 1995, a jury found Panetti guilty and sentenced him to death. That sentence comes due Wednesday, when Panetti is scheduled to die by lethal injection. To some, it will be justice finally being served. But to Panetti’s lawyers and other supporters, the planned execution is unconstitutional, and evidence of a capital punishment system in dire need of reform.

Panetti’s attorneys are appealing to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for a last-minute stay of execution, arguing that Panetti doesn’t understand he’s being executed for the double murder. They say Panetti hasn’t been given a competency hearing in seven years, and they believe his mental state has deteriorated since then. Panetti’s attorneys are challenging an earlier denial by an appeals court to hold a competency hearing, while also seeking a stay of execution from the Supreme Court on the grounds that putting to death someone who is mentally ill is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

So far, courts haven’t been receptive to those arguments. Several witnesses for the state of Texas have testified that Panetti is competent and has an understanding of his crime. The state has provided hours of audio recordings of Panetti discussing the murders in which he “spoke rationally, demonstrated a fairly sophisticated understanding of his case, and discussed in an intelligent manner the death penalty and its moral implications,” according to court documents.

Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service who is representing Panetti, questions those accounts and says that his history with mental illness alone should be enough to prevent him from being executed.

(MORE: Utah Looks to Old Execution Method: Firing Squad)

“This is not a situation where a guy gets admitted to a hospital once and comes out and commits a crime,” Kase says. “These were multiple hospital admissions over a 12-year period. This is a pretty astonishing and well-documented history of mental illness. Nobody exists for 36 years like this in an effort to get off the hook of criminal responsibility.”

Dozens of mental health professionals and organizations have come out in support of clemency for Panetti, including the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and Mental Health America. But time is running out.

Panetti would be the 11th inmate executed in Texas this year, the most of any state. For years, Texas has killed more death row inmates than any other state.

Kase, who visited Panetti a couple weeks ago, says his mental health is worsening, possibly due to stress related to the upcoming execution date.

“He is extremely paranoid, and he is delusional,” Kase says. “And these delusions are that the prison wants to kill him to prevent him from preaching the gospel on death row or telling others about corruption at TDCJ [the Texas Department of Criminal Justice]. We’re not psychologists. We’re not mental health professionals. But we do know we’re seeing something really terrible happen.”

Read next: 103-Year-Old Texas Woman Fights to Keep Her House

TIME Crime

Utah Looks to Old Execution Method: Death by Firing Squad

Utah Firing Squad Ronnie Lee Gardner
The execution chamber at the Utah State Prison after Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad, with visible bullet holes, on June 18, 2010 in Draper, Utah. Trent Nelson—AP

State legislature may mandate firing squads if lethal injection drugs aren't available

Utah has a unique history with firing squad executions. The state used gunmen to execute Gary Gilmore in 1977, the first inmate put to death after the Supreme Court lifted a five-year moratorium on capital punishment. For years, it’s been one of just two states to allow the method as an option for inmates. And now, state legislators are looking to make it the default practice if lethal injection drugs are unavailable.

On Wednesday, the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee voted 9-2 in approving legislation that would bring back firing squads in executions. The bill, which will likely head to the full legislature early next year, would mandate a court hearing prior to an execution, in which a judge would determine whether the state had sufficient drugs to carry out lethal injection. If the judge ruled that drugs were lacking, a firing squad would be mandated; according to the Salt Lake Tribune, State Rep. Paul Ray says the state currently doesn’t have them.

MORE: Execution Problems Revive Talk of Using Firing Squads and the Electric Chair

Utah and Oklahoma are the only two states in recent years that have allowed firing squads in executions, but only Utah has actually used the method since capital punishment was reinstated. The practice soon fell out of favor following the highly publicized execution of Gilmore (famously captured in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song). Public opinion soon shifted toward lethal injection, which became the go-to execution method nationwide and was widely considered more humane. Only three inmates — Gilmore, John Albert Taylor and more recently Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010 — have been executed by firing squad since 1997, all in Utah.

But states around the U.S. have been looking often into archaic and previously discarded methods, thanks to increasing reluctance from pharmaceutical companies to sell drugs to prison systems.

A similar bill in Wyoming that would allow the state to use a firing squad if execution drugs are unavailable advanced in September and is expected to be taken up by the full legislature next year. In May, Tennessee passed a law bringing back the electric chair if lethal injection drugs can’t be acquired or if it’s deemed unconstitutional. (Lethal injection, however, is still the default method of the capital punishment.) And legislators in Louisiana have attempted to revive the chair, but with little success.

TIME Crime

Missouri Just Tied its Lethal Injection Record

Missouri Execution Taylor
Leon Taylor, sentenced to death in the killing of a gas station attendant, was executed by lethal injection early Wednesday morning. AP

Leon Taylor's lethal injection is the state's ninth this year

Missouri executed a convicted murderer, Leon Taylor, early Wednesday morning, the state’s ninth lethal injection this year and the most since Missouri’s record-setting pace in 1999.

Taylor, convicted of killing a Kansas City gas station attendant in 1994 in front of the worker’s 8-year-old stepdaughter, was executed with a single dose of pentobarbital. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declined to grant Taylor clemency, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied hearing the inmate’s appeals to halt his execution.

According to witnesses and prison officials, the execution went off without problems. Several prolonged lethal injections in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona earlier this year were widely considered to have been botched.

Missouri’s pace of executions this year is now second only to Texas, which has carried out 10 lethal injections in 2014 so far. According to experts, Missouri is executing inmates at a higher rate in part because it seems to have an adequate supply of the sedative pentobarbital, allowing Missouri to execute a number of inmates who have been waiting on death row for years.

TIME justice

Ohio Looks to Shield Lethal Injection Drugmakers

Death Penalty Obese Inmate
Ohio legislators are looking to shield the identity of drugmakers for lethal injections, which are performed in the execution chamber in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. Kiichiro Sato—Associated Press

Bill would keep the source of lethal injection drugs anonymous

Ohio lawmakers introduced legislation this week that would keep the source of lethal injection drugs anonymous.

The House bill, which was introduced on Monday and had its first hearing Wednesday, would protect individuals and pharmaceutical companies that manufacture, compound or supply drugs for executions while keeping those involved in administering the drugs, like physicians, anonymous.

Shielding the identity of drugmakers has become a common tactic by states that have had trouble obtaining execution drugs. Many drugmakers, especially compounding pharmacies—which are not under federal oversight but have been frequently used by prison systems and departments of corrections—don’t want it publicly known that they’re working with states to carry out lethal injections, fearing backlash from consumers and anti-death penalty advocates. Several states, including Arizona, Georgia and Missouri, have secrecy laws protecting drugmakers’ identities.

In October, Ohio’s attorney general said it was unlikely that the state would perform another lethal injection without action from legislators keeping the source of the state’s drugs anonymous. That statement indicated Ohio was likely out of lethal drugs altogether, and needed the ability to reassure compounding pharmacies that their identities would remain protected if the state sought drugs from them.

In August, a U.S. district judge extended a moratorium on lethal injections in the state until January 15, 2015. The order came after the execution of Dennis McGuire, who reportedly snored and snorted on the execution table in January in a prolonged lethal injection widely considered botched.

TIME justice

Oklahoma Changes Lethal Injection Protocol, But Keeps Controversial Drug

After an execution widely regarded as botched

The United States’ three executions this year widely considered botched all have at least one thing in common: they’ve all included the use of midazolam, a sedative previously unused in lethal injections.

In January, Ohio executed Dennis McGuire in a 25-minute lethal injection using a two-drug combination of midazolam and hydromorphone. In April, Oklahoma executed Clayton Lockett using midazolam as the first of three drugs in a process that took almost 45 minutes. And in July, Arizona used the same protocol as Ohio to execute Joseph Wood, another lethal injection that took close to two hours.

Late Tuesday, Oklahoma announced new lethal injection procedures requiring more training for executioners and contingency plans if any problems arise. The new protocol also reduces the number of media witnesses from 12 to five. On top of that, it provides the state with four different lethal injection drug combination options, two of which still involve midazolam in a dosage that is five times larger than what was used in Lockett’s execution.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections released the new guidelines this week without comment. But the move appears to be a way for the state to continue executions while opening the door for more desirable and, possibly, effective drugs that have become difficult to obtain.

“I think this represents a tension between the drugs they would prefer to use and what’s available,” says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment organization.

In April, Gov. Mary Fallin ordered an investigation into Lockett’s execution, which led to a report released in September by the Department of Public Safety that found that an IV line into Lockett’s groin had become dislodged and wasn’t immediately discovered. The agency made several recommendations for future executions, and the state’s department of corrections pledged to carry out most of them.

“This is in keeping with their position that the botched execution of Lockett was not due to the drugs used, but to the misplacement of the IV,” Dieter says. “To abandon midazolam might contradict this, and possibly leave them with no drugs to carry out the execution.”

Since pharmaceutical companies began denying states drugs like pentobarbital, a sedative that was widely used up until just a few years ago, midazolam has been easier for prison systems to get. And some states may fear that without it, they may not be able to carry out executions at all.

“I think states like Oklahoma are continuing to use midazolam because so far they can and they don’t know what else to do,” says Deborah Denno, a Fordham University professor who studies lethal injection.

TIME Crime

States Try Secrecy to Protect Lethal Injection Drugmakers

The death chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, in 2005.
Kiichiro Sato—AP

Ohio's attorney general proposed shielding the identity of companies who provide drugs for execution, following the lead of other states

States carrying out lethal injections have had to find new ways to execute inmates in recent years. Many have not only experimented with multiple untested drug combinations but have also turned to previously unused pharmacies. And they’ve increasingly tried to block the identity of those drugmakers in order to keep a steady supply of drugs flowing.

A handful of states, including Arizona, Georgia, Missouri and Oklahoma, have passed secrecy laws to protect the anonymity of pharmacies, which fear backlash if it becomes public that they’re providing drugs for executions. Ohio—home to a lethal injection earlier this year that was widely considered botched—may be next.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said this week that it’s unlikely executions in the state would proceed unless the legislature provided anonymity for compounding pharmacies and immunity for physicians involved in executions.

“You’re not going to see a death penalty take place until the General Assembly takes action,” DeWine said in a debate with a Democratic opponent Tuesday, according to the Columbus Dispatch. The execution of Ronald Phillips, convicted in the 1993 rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl, is scheduled for Feb. 11.

The comments appeared to be an indication of the difficulties Ohio is having obtaining execution drugs following the lethal injection of Dennis McGuire. In August, a moratorium on executions was set by U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost, who postponed all lethal injections in the state after McGuire—convicted in the 1989 rape and murder of 22-year-old Joy Stewart—was executed in a 25-minute-long execution, in which the inmate reportedly made repeated snoring and snorting noises. The state used two drugs, midazolam and hydromorphone, which were obtained from Illinois-based Hospira, a pharmaceutical company.

Since then, the McGuire family has sued Hospira, forcing Ohio to look elsewhere for drugs. Like most states, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is attempting to acquire drugs from compounding pharmacies, which are not regulated by the federal government. Many pharmacies, however, are unwilling to manufacture drugs for prison systems unless their identities are shielded.

Secrecy laws have become the only way for most states to continue carrying out the death penalty, but those protections are increasingly being challenged.

The Guardian, along with the Associated Press and Missouri’s three largest newspapers, filed a lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Corrections in May, arguing that under the First Amendment the public has a right to know what drugs the state is using and where the state is obtaining them. In September, the Guardian also joined the American Civil Liberties Union and three other newspapers in a similar lawsuit in Pennsylvania.

In a few states, efforts at creating secrecy laws have failed, including in Alabama and Louisiana, both of which failed to pass legislation shielding drugmakers. But most states are pressing forward.

“States certainly aren’t backing away from their secrecy positions,” says Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment organization. “In many states, the legislation already in place has been relied on to claim secrecy. It seems that part of Ohio’s, and other states’, problems stemmed from their secrecy. So it seems ironic that the proposed solution is even more secrecy.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser