Court: Clayton Lockett execution not ‘cruel and unusual punishment’

Clayton Lockett

Clayton Lockett

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DENVER, Colo. - An appeals court has upheld a decision that a now-infamous 2014 execution did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

The State of Oklahoma executed Clayton Lockett for killing 19-year-old Stephanie Nieman in 1999.

The resulting 43-minute procedure featured a never-before-used combination of execution drugs and went awry as Lockett awoke from his unconscious state, twitching and convulsing on the table.

Lockett's brother, Gary, sued several Oklahoma officials on the grounds that Clayton's execution  was "prolonged, painful, and torturous," and constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

On Tuesday, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals maintained Lockett's Cosntitutional rights were not violated.

Instead, the court ruled the mistakes made represented "isolated mishaps" rather than deliberate attempts to inflict pain.

"Although we accept that Lockett's execution was 'unnecessarily prolonged and horribly painful,' ... the problems during Lockett's execution fit under [an] exception for events that, 'while regrettable, do not suggest cruelty,'" Judge Gregory Phillips wrote in his majority opinion, citing past cases. "'Simply because an execution method may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death, does not establish the sort of objectively intolerable risk of harm that qualifies as cruel and unusual.'"

Phillips added, "some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution, no matter how humane," noting Supreme Court recognition that executions can go awry.

Since Oklahoma has taken steps to change its execution protocol, the court writes "we likely will never confront another Oklahoma execution presenting the same circumstances as Lockett's execution."

But attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, which expressed its own concerns with Lockett's execution, sees the opposite.

"I think what this opinion seems to do is joins a growing course of courts that are really closing the doors of the courthouse to claims having to do with botched executions," said Brady Henderson, legal director of ACLU of Oklahoma. "And of course what that will do long term is guarantee that there will be more botched executions and that we're going to have a lot more embarrassments."

Henderson sees an unfair playing field by essentially asserting that corrections officers didn't mean to hurt Lockett. He worries about the precedent it sets, noting few, if any, others have to meet such a high standard for negligence.

What's more, Henderson says the ruling fails to levy consequences against a state that is now working to change its execution protocol to effectively carry out capital punishment.

"The problem is if you don't hold the state liable for the failure, then where is the incentive to make it better next time?" he said. "It echoes some other disturbing things we've seen around the country where some states aren't really being held to a high standard here. And states shouldn't be held to a high standard when you're talking about the biggest, bravest exercise of state power here, which is the government actually killing one of its own citizens. That should be about as high standards as it gets."

A spokesman for the Department of Corrections said the ruling "speaks for itself." The Governor's office did not comment on the ruling.

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