Oklahoma execution gone wrong


Our neighbors in Oklahoma had a Ricky Ray Rector moment on Tuesday night. Their second, in fact. In the interconnected indices of the macabre and the Machiavellian the latest one surpassed the first. And it soared beyond the Rector episode.

You may remember Rector, or his execution. I do. I was there, at Cummins Prison, on the night of Jan. 24, 1992. There was a delay in the proceedings, unexplained for several minutes. Finally a Correction Department spokesman explained that the medical team was having difficulty finding a vein in Rector’s arm to accommodate the needle. Eventually they got the job done, but the ordeal left the volunteer clinicians and the prison staff equally, visibly, unsettled.

You may remember as well that Rector’s execution was national news for two reasons. One, the condemned man had effectively lobotomized himself, firing a bullet into his own skull only seconds after fatally wounding the Conway policeman to whom he had agreed to surrender in connection with an earlier homicide. Second, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, having pronounced himself a supporter of capital punishment, left the presidential campaign trail and flew home to Arkansas to be at hand (in the Governor’s Mansion) to demonstrate his bona fides.

If indeed Rector rendered himself as docile as a kitten, as widely reported, he was not universally viewed as a sympathetic character; he had been convicted of one murder and was suspect in a second. That it was necessary to slice open the arms of an uncomprehending man in order to put him to death did, however, give pause to all save the most resolute advocates of the ultimate sanction.

The two men who were slated to die in Oklahoma Tuesday night had still smaller claims to compassion: one watched while the teenager he shot was buried alive by two accomplices; the second raped and murdered an 11-month-old girl. Savage acts. And they brought out a political primitivism that has tainted every branch of Sooner State government.

Neither death sentence was carried out though there was a death. Oklahoma’s prison director ordered the first execution halted after the condemned man, supposedly anesthetized in accordance with law, began convulsing and groaning. Almost as quickly as doctors determined that the vein holding the needle had failed, the inmate died of a heart attack. The director cancelled the second execution, then requested the governor issue a stay.

As bizarre as were Tuesday evening’s events, they mirrored the grotesque maneuverings and rhetoric that colored Oklahoma’s executive, legislative and judicial branches in the weeks preceding. The two inmates, noting that an earlier execution in Oklahoma had not gone as intended — the prisoner’s moans were plainly audible — demanded to know what chemicals would be used to end their lives, the characteristics of the drugs, their source, their effectiveness. The state dodged and weaved when it did not flatly refuse the information. Gov. Mary Fallin and the Oklahoma attorney general essentially sneered at the legal proceedings. When the state Supreme Court granted a temporary stay of execution Fallin announced she would ignore it; a handful of state legislators vowed to impeach the justices. No one was heard to bellow “String ‘em up!” but the lynch law attitude was appalling.

Oklahoma is not alone among states who find it convenient to conceal the methods and medicines employed in an execution. Nearly a dozen states, most in the south, have imposed a veil of secrecy over capital punishment procedures and pharmaceuticals.

Arkansas? Not a year ago, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel declared the state’s death penalty system “broken.” The refusal of companies which manufacture drugs suitable for lethal injection to sell them for that purpose (which has sent other states scurrying to less regulated boutique laboratories in search of the substances) and the difficulty in recruiting medical personnel to administer the chemicals has effectively suspended capital punishment in Arkansas for the foreseeable future. The courts have scuttled legislative action to re-write the death penalty statute and have ruled for inmates seeking information about the “cocktail” they would receive. State-sanctioned death by needle, McDaniel allowed, had become “a legal fallacy,” though not necessarily with his approval.

Gov. Beebe approves. His tenure will end in January with not a single execution on his watch, owing to Death Row appeals. Yes, he told an audience last year, he would sign a bill repealing capital punishment if the legislature adopted one, but “I don’t expect that to happen.”

Neither does anyone else, including this year’s candidates, all of whom express support for the death penalty. What we have a right to expect, and to demand, is a rejection by our public officials of the extra-constitutional machinations, political grandstanding and bloodlust on display to the west of us.

Oklahoma is not okay.

• • •

Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.