(OKLAHOMA CITY) — A doctor who examined the body of an Oklahoma inmate who died during a botched execution told a federal judge Wednesday that he is convinced the man suffered after being declared unconscious.
Dr. Joseph Cohen, a pathologist hired by the inmate’s lawyer, said that recently released witness statements corroborate his belief that Clayton Lockett was conscious when given drugs to stop his heart and breathing. Several witnesses, including an Associated Press reporter, saw the inmate struggle against his restraints, mumble and try to raise his head.
“Mr. Lockett had been deemed unconscious but became conscious again,” Cohen testified at a hearing on whether Oklahoma should resume executions Jan. 15 after a self-imposed moratorium. Death row inmates say they fear the state is conducting human experiments on them by using newly approved drug combinations during executions.
The state maintains that Lockett’s problematic execution was an anomaly caused by an improperly set intravenous line and not the result of using the sedative midazolam as the first in a three-drug combination.
Assistant Attorney General John Hadden said Oklahoma and other states have been forced to look for other drug alternatives after more commonly used short-acting barbiturates became scarce because of manufacturers’ opposition to the death penalty.
Oklahoma was the first state ever to use 100 milligrams of midazolam as part of a three-drug protocol during Lockett’s execution. Florida has used 500 milligrams, the level Oklahoma’s new protocol calls for using.
But a Florida anesthesiologist, Dr. David Lubarsky, testified that midazolam has a ceiling effect, and that increasing the dose does not increase the effect. He also said it’s used mostly to calm a patient before a surgery, and not as an anesthetic that produces unconsciousness.
“It’s simply not strong enough to reduce all electrical activity in the brain,” Lubarsky said.
Based on his belief that Lockett was conscious when the second and third drugs were administered, Lubarsky said it’s likely Lockett felt a progressive suffocation and then an intense pain once the potassium chloride was injected.
“It’s been described as liquid fire,” Lubarsky said.
Hadden noted that Lubarsky also testified in a Florida case challenging the use of midazolam, in which a judge determined that state’s protocol was constitutional.
Karen Cunningham, a victim services coordinator for the state attorney general’s office who has witnessed about a dozen executions, said that although Lockett mumbled and moved, it didn’t appear as though he was struggling.
“He didn’t seem uncomfortable. It didn’t seem like suffering,” Cunningham told Department of Public Safety investigators in a statement she reaffirmed Wednesday. She added, however, “he did raise up more than what I had ever seen.” Cunningham does not have any medical training.
Cohen was hired by Lockett’s lawyer to perform an autopsy after the body was returned to Oklahoma from Dallas, where doctors performed an exam on the state’s behalf. Lockett’s lawyer, David Autry, said it was apparent to him that Lockett became conscious after being declared unconscious. Autry also is not a medical professional.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot opened the three-day hearing Wednesday. Oklahoma has four executions scheduled from Jan. 15 to March 5.
The judge also heard from Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Anita Trammell, who was inside the death chamber during Lockett’s execution. Trammell acknowledged that the execution team, including the doctor inside the chamber, was not adequately trained and did not have the proper supplies.
Since Lockett’s execution, prison officials have purchased new medical equipment and renovated the death chamber to give the executioners more room.
Lockett was convicted of shooting Stephanie Nieman, 19, with a sawed-off shotgun and watching as two accomplices buried her alive in 1999.