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Federal lawsuit filed after botched execution of Oklahoma inmate, alleges violations

OKLAHOMA CITY – A federal lawsuit has been filed involving the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April.

The suit has been filed by two news publications and the ACLU, who all say more transparency is needed.

On April 29, prison officials in McAlester used a different mixture of drugs for Lockett’s execution after the normal drugs were no longer available.

Its procedures were questioned when Lockett appeared to writhe in pain, regain consciousness and speak during the execution.

NewsChannel 4’s Courtney Francisco witnessed Lockett’s execution.

Francisco and other witnesses watched as the curtains were opened and the lethal injection process began.

They were also watching when something seemed to go wrong.

“He was struggling to breathe. He was struggling to move. He said the word man,” Francisco said.

Over 30 minutes after the IV was inserted, execution officials closed the shades so witnesses could no longer see what was happening.

“She (a prison official) said, ‘We’re going to lower the blinds,’ and they did,” said Francisco.

It’s a move the lawsuit says should not happen in the future.

20 minutes after the blinds were closed, Lockett was pronounced dead after suffering a heart attack.

The American Civil Liberties Union, The Guardian and The Oklahoma Observer have filed a federal lawsuit, saying Oklahoma prison officials filtered what journalists could see during the execution.

“We don’t know what was happening behind the curtains as this execution was carried out, or alleged execution,” said Arnold Hamilton, with The Oklahoma Observer.

“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 Lee Rowland, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “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 demands that reporters and other witnesses be allowed to view the execution without interruption from the time the prisoner walks into the execution chamber until he or she leaves it.

“We know this is something important enough to the public, critical enough that it has to be carried out in an open fashion. It can’t be behind a wall of secrecy,” Brady Henderson, with the ACLU, said.

This would allow witnesses to see, without question, what happens and later report the full story.

“This is the ultimate punishment that the state can impose on somebody and we think people have a right to know what’s happened. To have independent eyes and ears there to see what’s going on,” said Hamilton.

The lawsuit claims the blinds were closed while Lockett was brought into the chamber, strapped down and had an IV inserted.

The blinds were raised when officials began to administer the lethal drugs.

The complaint alleges, “The media, and by extension, the Oklahoma public, had no access to witness or document whether the IV insertion procedure was performed according to protocol, whether the individual or individuals who inserted the IV appeared to be acting with the proper training, whether the condemned experienced pain during that process, and whether any other events occurred during the execution proceeding between 5:19 p.m. and 6:23 p.m.”

However, the blinds were closed again when they realized something had gone wrong.

“Plaintiffs were forced to rely on official reports from the State for critical details of the execution proceeding. Accordingly, they were unable to give firsthand, objective accounts as to whether established procedures were followed or whether, and to what extent, Lockett experienced pain and suffering as a result,” it alleges.

Click here to read the full complaint.

A release sent by the ACLU says members of the press could hear sounds coming from the execution chamber that sounded like Lockett was in pain but they could not actually see what was happening, so they were unable to verify the source or nature of the sounds.

“By witnessing and reporting on the entire execution process, members of the news media, as representatives and surrogates of the public, provide assurance that established procedures and protocols are being followed and that deviations will be publicized,” the complaint says.

It goes on to say that if the state is allowed to prevent witnesses from seeing certain parts of the execution, the public will have no way of knowing if the proceedings meet current standards of decency.

The Department of Corrections says they will not comment on the lawsuit.

We have also reached out to the attorney general’s office; however, they have not yet returned our call.