On April 29, 2014, Oklahoma prison officials administered an untested mixture of 3 drugs to Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer and rapist. The new cocktail was deemed necessary because European companies that once supplied chemicals used for lethal injections in the US refused to sell them to states that still sanction the death penalty.
The execution went immediately and terrifyingly wrong. Following administration of the first drug, Lockett, obviously conscious, started to writhe and groan, and then went into convulsions. The death chamber’s curtains were hastily drawn and witnesses summarily removed. While subsequent events are still obscure, it is clear that Lockett died of a coronary occlusion 42 minutes after the “procedure” began. Oklahoma authorities suspended further executions, including one scheduled for the same day. The usual suspects were rounded up for an investigation. It will take several months before all the facts are on the table.
Lockett was an unrepentantly wicked man. He committed many acts of brutal violence before his arrest in 1999 for the rape, shooting, and live burial of a 19-year-old girl. Most inmates who face a death sentence behave well during the slow march of years it takes for their cases to plod through our courts. But Lockett’s malicious behavior continued unabated on death row. He threatened serious injury to prisoners and guards, proudly proclaimed himself a badass “assassin” while he pursued every legal means of preventing his execution.
Intriguingly, Lockett’s engrained evil and repugnant deeds can be construed as justification for—or against—the death penalty. Refusing to exact the barbaric retribution of earlier times on this monster of depravity could be deemed an exemplary exercise of civilized morality. One could also argue that life behind bars would be far more punitive than a quick and merciful death.
Mutatis mutandis, Lockett’s dispatch could be construed as a civilized society’s most meaningful response to heinous crime. But a remorseless sociopath may actually thrive during life incarceration, at the very least pose mortal danger to prisoners and guards alike. Far better to have him permanently deleted.
Lockett’s maladroit execution predictably rekindled debate over the death penalty. I won’t rehash the standard arguments pro or con. I undertook this piece after hearing several acquaintances assert that although they strongly opposed the death penalty, the Oklahoma grisly debacle gave Lockett the excruciating end he truly deserved.
The cognitive disconnect implied by this statement set me to wondering about the deeper psychic factors behind standard views. I claim no statistical proof on either side of the dispute, nor do I believe that unconscious, or at least unacknowledged, motives always figure decisively in most opinions one way or another. I only suggest there may be less rational biases swirling beneath the surface of “reasonable” beliefs about the death penalty.