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ACLU, newspapers sue over right to witness entire execution

TIME.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- A botched execution and a veil of secrecy at McAlester’s Oklahoma State Penitentiary left reporters and other witnesses wondering what happened behind drawn curtains as Clayton Lockett lay on a gurney writhing in pain four months ago.

That scenario, which occurred April 29th, prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to file a federal lawsuit against the Oklahoma Department of Corrections Aug. 25. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of The Oklahoma Observer newspaper and The Guardian US, alleging prison officials blocked witnesses’ view when the procedure did not go as planned. The lawsuit demands that reporters and other witnesses be permitted to view the execution, without interruption, from the time the condemned prisoner enters the execution chamber until he or she leaves it.

“The state of Oklahoma violated the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of the press to witness executions so the public can be informed about the government’s actions and hold it accountable,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Lee Rowland. “The death penalty represents the most powerful exercise of government authority. The need for public oversight is as critical at the execution stage as it is during trial.”

DOC spokesman Jerry Massie said prison officials do not comment on pending litigation.

Oklahoma ACLU Executive Director Ryan Kiesel said allowing full and unfettered access to executions is paramount to the First Amendment.

“Executions should be open for examination in their entirety, warts and all,” he said Tuesday.

Although the ACLU is opposed to the death penalty, Kiesel said the federal lawsuit has nothing to do with abolition.

“This is about being able to accurately report on one of the most important aspects of the criminal justice system,” he said.

The lawsuit does not allege a pattern of secrecy on the part of prison officials, but Kiesel said one time is too many.

“This one case, in and of itself, is troubling because the media was unable to accurately report what occurred in that death chamber,” he said. “I have not seen any indication that the powers-at-be are willing to be more transparent. That’s obvious by their failure to conduct an independent investigation. This is not just about closing the curtains before he died, but also the fact that the curtains were drawn as they inserted the IVs.”

Absent a change in policy from DOC, Kiesel intends to file a preliminary injunction request before the next scheduled executions, asking a federal judge to order prison officials to keep the curtain open at all times. Charles Warner is set to die by lethal injection Nov. 13 followed by Richard Eugene Glossip on Nov. 20.

Lockett mess

At the Lockett execution, as with other executions in Oklahoma, the windows for witnesses to look into the execution chamber were covered by blinds while Lockett was brought into the chamber, strapped down, and had intravenous lines inserted. The blinds were raised only when officials began to administer the lethal drugs. After about 20 additional minutes, state officials closed the blinds after Lockett began to writhe, groan, and speak when he should have been unconscious.

The blinds stayed down for approximately 20 more minutes, during which prison officials said they tried to determine the problem, called off the execution, and finally declared Lockett dead of a heart attack. Also in that time, members of the press could hear sounds coming from the execution chamber indicating pain and suffering, but they were unable to verify their exact source or nature because they could not see what was happening. There were no independent witnesses to Lockett’s death, and the precise cause of death has yet to be determined.

Oklahoma City criminal defense attorney David Slane said DOC officials made grave mistakes during the April 29 execution.

“The law in Oklahoma is that everything is to be done in an open fashion. This lawsuit will, quite candidly, open a can of worms because we will finally see what was happening back there in secret. The only way the public will know what’s going on is if the media is able to witness everything,” he said.

“We’re not going to have public hangings anymore where people just walk down to the town square and see an execution.”

The Lockett case has cost DOC its credibility, leaving the public to wonder what prison officials might be hiding, Slane said.

“We know they (prison officials) weren’t honest and candid about the vein failure. We’ve seen secrecy in regards to the drugs that are used and where they obtained the drugs. There may well be a pattern of behavior that centers on secrecy,” he said. “There’s real doubts about their (lack of) transparency.”

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Tim Farley

Tim Farley is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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