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May 9, 2014

Execution ritual cloaked in secrecy

OKLAHOMA —

Black-hooded executioners passing through the halls of Oklahoma State Penitentiary on execution day form one of Randy Lopez's most vivid memories during the years he worked on death row.

Lopez, now retired from the Department of Corrections, said he never knew who was under the hoods. Executioners' identities — even genders — were close secrets kept from everyone including those responsible for guarding death row.

In a further measure to protect their identities, the people whose job it was to push the plungers filled with lethal drugs were always first to arrive before an execution, Lopez said.

They were led to an anteroom next to the execution chamber, out of the view of witnesses.

Afterward, they were last to leave.

Oklahoma has executed 96 prisoners since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, and the execution ritual at the penitentiary in McAlester is proscribed by policies that detail everything including the shoes a condemned prisoner must wear.

But key parts including identities of major players — phlebotomists, doctors who monitor the procedure and executioners — are kept secret by courts and state law.

Problems that delayed and ultimately led prison officials to halt the execution of Clayton Lockett, 38, on April 29, have intensified calls for transparency from death penalty opponents. Lockett died of an apparent heart attack, prison officials said, shortly after the procedure was stopped.

Brady Henderson, legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, said while some parts of the execution are clear, many others are hidden behind a “wall of secrecy.” The public, he said, doesn’t know who’s involved, their training, how much they get paid, the source of the lethal drugs or their purity.

“There are even a lot of controls that people working there at the prison have no idea who they are,” said Henderson.

Henderson said courts, at least, must be apprised of which pharmacy supplies the execution drugs, as well as whether the phlebotomist who inserts IVs into the prisoner is properly certified. Strange things can happen, he said, if drugs are not administered correctly.

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