US President Barack Obama, in his first public comments on the case, called the botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate “deeply troubling” and announced that he is going to ask the US attorney-general to analyze problems surrounding the application of the death penalty in the US.
In his comments on the case of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett, the president — who formerly taught constitutional law — expressed conflicting feelings about the death penalty and said Americans need to “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions around these issues.”
Obama said the death penalty is warranted in some cases, specifically mentioning mass murder and child murder, and said Lockett’s crimes were “heinous.”
However, he said the death penalty’s application in the US is problematic, with evidence of racial bias and eventual exoneration of some death row inmates.
“All these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied,” Obama said. “And this situation in Oklahoma I think just highlights some of the significant problems there.”
The state of Oklahoma attempted to carry out Lockett’s death sentence on Tuesday by lethal injection, using a drug combination that had not been previously used in the state.
Lockett convulsed violently during the execution and tried to lift his head after a doctor declared him unconscious, then died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began.
“What happened in Oklahoma is deeply troubling,” Obama said when asked about international condemnation of the US’ application of the death penalty in light of Lockett’s case.
He said he will ask US Attorney General Eric Holder and others “to get me an analysis of what steps have been taken, not just in this particular instance, but more broadly in this area.”
The White House declined to comment further on what the analysis might cover.
The US Department of Justice indicated its review would focus more on how executions are carried out, rather than the issues of race and wrongful convictions that Obama said also should be discussed.
“The department is currently conducting a review of the federal protocol used by the Bureau of Prisons, and has a moratorium in place on federal executions in the meantime. At the president’s direction, the department will expand this review to include a survey of state-level protocols and related policy issues,” the justice ministry said in a statement late on Friday.
Lockett was already a four-time felon when he was convicted by a jury in 2000 of murder, rape, kidnapping, burglary and other charges and received his death sentence.
The murder victim was 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman, who came upon Lockett and two accomplices as they were beating a man in front of his nine-month-old son during a robbery.
Neiman and a friend came to the house while the robbery was in progress, and the robbers bound the two women with duct tape and raped Neiman’s friend.
The three men then drove all four victims to a remote area, where Lockett shot Neiman with a sawn-off shotgun after she refused to say she would not report them to police. Lockett then watched as his two accomplices buried her alive.
A spokesman for the UN human rights office in Geneva said Lockett’s prolonged execution could amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international human rights law.
“The apparent cruelty involved ... simply reinforces the argument that authorities across the United States should impose an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty and work for abolition of this cruel and inhuman practice,” Colville told reporters on Friday.
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin had called on Wednesday for an investigation of Lockett’s execution to be conducted by the state’s Department of Public Safety.
She also said she would issue a stay on the execution of Charles Warner, who had been scheduled to be executed two hours after Lockett, using the same drug combination.
Department of Public Safety spokesman Captain George Brown said on Friday that the autopsy is expected to be finished in eight to 12 weeks.
The drugs intended for Warner were never used. Oklahoma Assistant Attorney-General Kindanne Jones said in a letter on Friday that attorneys for Lockett and Warner may have access to the drugs if any are left over after the state’s analysis is complete.
Before Lockett’s execution, the state had refused to provide the source of the execution drugs, citing state law that allows such details to remain confidential.
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