When Oklahoma investigators issued a report on what went wrong with the April execution of Clayton Lockett, they downplayed and omitted disturbing details from witnesses and officials, records filed in federal court show.
During interviews with state investigators, the warden at Oklahoma State Penitentiary recalled the scene inside the execution chamber on April 29 as “a bloody mess,” according to a motion filed Friday by attorneys for death-row inmates.
Another witness said the scene “was like a horror movie” as Lockett was bucking and attempting to raise himself off the gurney when he was supposed to be unconscious and dying.
The paramedic who struggled to start numerous IVs that night told state investigators that “the process that day as a whole” was “a cluster.”
The document was filed by attorneys representing 21 death-row inmates suing the state as a result of Lockett’s execution, alleging Oklahoma’s execution procedures amount to cruel and unusual punishment and violate their constitutional rights.
Lockett began to writhe and mumble several minutes after he was declared unconscious by the doctor. His death took 43 minutes and involved numerous failed IV attempts.
A state investigation released in September pointed to the failed IV as the largest problem in Lockett’s execution, noting the prison lacked key medical equipment and a contingency plan despite having two inmates scheduled to die that night. The investigation, led by Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson, did not hold any state official or execution team member responsible for failures during the execution.
The document filed Friday reveals many details the state has not publicly disclosed and has fought in court to conceal since Lockett’s death. The plaintiffs’ proposed findings of fact is based on DPS documents, including interview transcripts that remain sealed.
The Tulsa World requested the transcripts, emails and other documents related to the execution months ago from DPS and Gov. Mary Fallin’s office, but they have not been released. DPS has not cited a law allowing it to withhold the transcripts and after the World’s request, DPS attorneys asked a judge to seal them.
‘Hurry up about it’
According to the filing Friday, key prison officials and the doctor who carried the execution say they had little knowledge of the drugs being administered, and the Attorney General’s Office helped select the drug combination used. The botched execution was the state’s first use of midazolam, a sedative involved in problematic executions in Ohio and Arizona.
In emails and prior statements to the World, Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office repeatedly insisted DOC was solely responsible for the protocol. The state’s protocol states that the OSP warden “will have sole discretion as to which lethal agent will be used for the scheduled execution.”
A former Department of Corrections general counsel told investigators the state was under “a lot of pressure” to carry out the executions of Lockett and another inmate, Charles Warner, on the same night.
“The Attorney General’s Office, being an elective office, was under a lot of pressure,” said Michael Oakley, former general counsel for the Department of Corrections, according to the motion. Oakley has since retired from DOC.
“The staff over there was under a lot of pressure to, to say, ‘Get it done,’ you know, and so, yeah, I, I think it was a joint decision but there was, I got to say there was a definite push to make the decision, get it done, hurry up about it.”
A week before Lockett and a second inmate were set to be executed, Fallin intervened in an ongoing legal challenge before the Supreme Court. Fallin stated that the court exceeded its authority when it had issued a stay in the case and set her own stay for seven days later.
According to the court filing, OSP Warden Anita Trammell said it was Pruitt’s office and Oakley who came up with the revamped execution protocol used on April 29. An affidavit that Trammell signed on the day of the execution said she would ensure DOC execution policies were followed.
“I signed the damn thing,” Trammell said during her interview with DPS. “I did not write that policy. I did not choose those drugs.”
Director Robert Patton confirmed in interviews with DPS that the lethal drugs were not chosen by Trammell: “The previous general counsel (Oakley) and the Attorney General’s Office” chose the drugs, he told investigators.
When supplies of Oklahoma’s usual execution drug ran short, the AG’s office and DOC’s general counsel cobbled together a new drug protocol, the filing shows. They used online research such as “Wiki leaks or whatever it is” and testimony from an expert who testified in Florida whom they did not meet with, Oakley told investigators.
Trammell said she was told the drug could take a few minutes longer to sedate the condemned men than previous drugs. When she talked to the execution team about “this drug, Midazolam, and the effects, the slower effects ... the executioners didn’t know anything about it. No one did.”
Jennifer Chance, deputy general counsel to Fallin, also told DPS investigators: “I knew that these drugs were expected to take longer than the old drugs. ... I had an understanding that it would take 10 to 15 minutes instead of the six to eight minutes.”
She said she learned that information from Patton, who was hired about three months before the execution after many years in Arizona. But the drug had not yet been used in an Arizona execution by the time Patton began working as DOC director.
In July, Arizona executed inmate Joseph Wood using midazolam, a process that took nearly two hours. Five days later, the warden who oversaw that execution, Lance Hetmer, began a newly created job as a special assistant to Patton.
The state’s official investigation reported Lockett received enough of the lethal drugs to die but did not verify that he had received enough midazolam to be rendered fully unconscious before the final two drugs were administered.
The death-row inmates who filed the suit seek an injunction halting future Oklahoma executions, alleging the state’s process is unconstitutional. Attorneys for the state say DOC should be allowed to continue with executions because a new protocol requires additional training and safeguards to ensure executions will be constitutional.
A hearing over the injunction request begins Wednesday in Oklahoma City’s federal court.
‘He tried to get up’
DPS Director Thompson said after the investigation that he didn’t consider the execution botched because “Lockett died.” But statements from witnesses and executioners paint a picture of a disturbingly bloody and hectic scene inside the prison.
One member of the execution team who was interviewed told investigators: “The warden, you know, said it was very bad. You know.
“And said we’d all be — said we’d all be going to federal court.”
The paramedic who described the scene as “a cluster” and others told investigators they felt stressed by the pressure of two executions in one night. Lockett and Warner were set to be executed two hours apart.
“There was an air of urgency there. The quick, quick. Got to get it done. Got to get it done,” he told investigators.
The paramedic initially “got the vein the first stick” when attempting to set the IV line but did not have tape to secure the line.
The doctor overseeing the execution filled in at the last minute after the prison’s usual execution doctor had a schedule conflict. The doctor, who had overseen one previous execution, said he was never told he would have to start an IV.
Neither the doctor nor paramedic who presided over Lockett’s execution are identified in the court filings due to a state law that bans state release of such information. The doctor has been identified in a civil suit by Lockett’s family as McAlester emergency room doctor Johnny Zellmer.
Zellmer has not returned calls seeking comment.
“I was hesitant to do anything,” the unnamed doctor told state investigators. “I said, I don’t know, you know, what my status is inside here. I’m not supposed to be doing anything except, you know, deciding whether he was unconscious and then declaring him deceased.”
He said he was told he may only have to insert an IV “in an emergent situation.”
Executioners who pushed the drugs were driven to the prison in hoods and paid $600 each because two executions were scheduled that night. They’re typically paid $300.
While a person’s hand is one of the easiest places to start an IV, the offender’s hands are tied down in a manner that makes it difficult, the paramedic told investigators.
When the doctor and paramedic began to attempt more difficult IV access in Lockett’s neck and groin areas, they didn’t have an ultrasound machine to guide the procedure or needles that were long enough.
The doctor said he attempted the femoral IV in Lockett’s groin as a last resort.
“Someone asked me about putting another line in, and I said I wouldn’t attempt it, I couldn’t, that I didn’t think I could get another line in and I wasn’t going to attempt” to.
“We had stuck this individual so many times, I didn’t want to try and do another line,” the doctor told investigators. “I wasn’t wanting to do the IV access in the first place. … I didn’t want to do any more, plain and simple.”
They covered the IV in Lockett’s groin area with a sheet so he wasn’t exposed to witnesses, the paramedic said. The sheet made it difficult to tell that the IV had infiltrated and the lethal injection drugs were leaking, according to the state’s investigation.
Trammell told investigators she should have realized the agency’s policy “does not tell us what to do when something goes south.”
One executioner said he heard a moan as the second syringe of drugs was pushed, but he wasn’t sure if it came from Lockett. The execution team pushing the drugs operate in a closet-sized room with a limited view of the chamber.
As they pushed the third and final drug, another executioner noticed Lockett’s violent reaction.
“He tried to get up. In my opinion, he tried to get up, because it floored me,” the executioner told investigators.
Several said he grimaced and appeared to be in pain, and may have uttered “man” or expletives.
Patton gave his own description of Lockett’s reaction to investigators: “I heard him say the word ‘man’, he did strain, he did – I guess a good word is to kinda (bare) his teeth a little bit.
“He had appeared, and by no means am I a medical professional, but it did appear that he was at least tremors. I’m not sure it was convulsions, but there were – he was having tremors in his legs, mainly. You know, the reaction from the witnesses was pretty intense.”
One witness said the execution “was like a horror movie,” recalling that Lockett kept bucking and trying to get off the gurney.
The paramedic, who had stepped out of the chamber by this point, heard someone say the blinds were being lowered and he needed to return to the room.
“They’re putting the blinds down and he’s trying to get off the table. I thought, wow. Okay. What’s going on,” he told investigators.
Although the prison lacked the right needles and had no backup drugs, the doctor attempted another femoral IV. No one was sure why. Blood backed up into the IV line, and the paramedic told the doctor he’d hit the artery, noting the doctor seemed anxious.
“We’ve got blood everywhere,” the paramedic recalled to investigators.
The warden described the scene inside the chamber as “a bloody mess.” The paramedic didn’t know whether a stay had been issued at this point.
Trammell got the director on the phone outside the chamber and told him what was happening.
Thompson was reportedly the first person who “recommended that we terminate the execution,” officials reported.
Patton consulted with the governor’s general counsel, Steve Mullins, and they decided to stop the execution.
Fallin was attending a Thunder basketball game in Oklahoma City at the time. She has said that members of her staff were in constant communication with DOC throughout the evening.
“Prior to the last witness leaving, the Warden called me back on the phone and said the offender had expired – had died. And I said, ‘Wow. Was it the chemicals or what?’ ” Patton recalled to investigators.