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Lawsuit Claims Execution of Clayton Lockett Violated First Amendment
Summary: Clayton Lockett was sentenced to death on April 29 of this year. After he received his lethal injection, he groaned and writhed on the gurney before he finally died 43 minutes later. Now, the ACLU, as well as some news outlets, have filed a federal lawsuit that seeks to ban any prohibition of observing the entire execution process.
The execution of Clayton Lockett on April 29 of this year was far from typical, according to the latest update from the Guardian. Instead of watching the life slowly slip away from Lockett after a lethal injection was administered, observers watched Lockett struggle as it took 43 minutes for the drugs to take his life. Lockett, a convicted murderer and rapist, writhed and groaned on the gurney before he died.
Robert Patton, the director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, actually called off the execution after 33 minutes because the drugs were not working. However, Lockett was pronounced dead 10 minutes later. The execution sparked outcry across the United States for its seemingly inhumane administration. President Obama called the procedure “deeply disturbing.”
However, the length of time the injection took to kill Lockett is only a small part of the problem. Reporters present in the death chamber were only able to view Lockett for a mere 16 minutes. A blind was lowered across the window that separated Lockett from the viewing area. Although a state official present at the execution stated that the curtain would be lowered “temporarily,” the curtain remained down throughout the rest of the proceeding until Lockett was officially declared dead.
Now, a lawsuit has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), alleging that the state of Oklahoma acted unconstitutionally by drawing the screen between the death chamber and the observation room. The suit claims that doing so is a violation of first amendment press freedoms.
Aside from the ACLU, the Guardian, the Oklahoma Observer, and journalist Katie Fretland also join the suit. Fretland was one of the reporters present in the observation room. The suit seeks a ban from denying reporters “meaningful, uninterrupted and unedited access to the entire execution procedure.”
Fretland noted that the actions of the prison seemed to “echo Oklahoma’s fierce commitment to secrecy in the way it carries out lethal injections…the curtains were drawn over the execution chamber, obscuring the gruesome spectacle from public view.”
Lee Rowland, staff attorney for the ACLU, argued, “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. 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.”
The lawsuit goes on to allege that observers should have been granted an unimpeded view of the process until Lockett was declared dead, or, in the alternative, until the execution was called off and the state began attempting to resuscitate Lockett.
The suit seeks to establish legal injunctions that would prevent Oklahoma from limiting the information about public executions available to the public and to the news. The next scheduled lethal injection is set for November 13, 2014. Charles Warner will be executed after being sentenced to death in 2003 for raping and murdering a baby. In a strange twist of fate, Warner’s execution had been scheduled for the same night as Lockett’s, but, after the horrific execution of Lockett, his execution was postponed.
If the suit is successful, it will be mandatory for Oklahoma to allow reporters to witness entire executions, from entry of the prisoner into the death chamber to the point where the prisoner is declared dead. Reporters will be able to view the injection of the lethal drugs, and officials would be prohibited from preventing witnesses from seeing the condemned prisoner at any time up until the prisoner is declared dead or the execution is stopped.
Lately, many death penalty states have been challenged after a series of failed procedures occurred during execution procedures. The Guardian and other news outlets have brought a lawsuit against the state of Missouri, seeking to force the state to disclose the source of its lethal injection drugs. It argues that the public’s first amendment rights have been violated by failing to provide such information.
Photo credit: nbcnews.comDisturbing Execution of Clayton Lockett Triggers Filing of Lawsuit by the ACLU and News Outlets by Noelle Price