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Execution autopsy reveals errors in use of IV
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Execution autopsy reveals errors in use of IV

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Officials apparently failed to properly place an IV in Clayton Lockett’s femoral vein, casting doubt on claims that his vein collapsed, according to preliminary findings of an independent autopsy sought by defense attorneys.

The autopsy was performed by forensic pathologist Joseph I. Cohen May 14 following the botched execution of Lockett April 29, according to a Friday news release.

Cohen was retained by attorneys for Oklahoma death-row prisoners. He is president of United Forensic Services, with offices in California and New York.

Cohen formerly served as the chief forensic pathologist for the Riverside (Calif.) County Sheriff-Coroner and was city medical examiner for New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

Another autopsy being conducted in Dallas at the request of Gov. Mary Fallin is expected to take two to three weeks to complete.

Fallin also appointed her public safety commissioner, Michael Thompson, to conduct what she said would be an independent investigation into Lockett’s execution.

DPS spokesman George Brown declined comment Friday on the preliminary autopsy report.

The news release states that Cohen’s findings are preliminary and that a long list of evidence and information is needed to complete the autopsy.

Department of Corrections officials halted Lockett’s execution 33 minutes after it began after he spent three minutes writhing, mumbling and rising up from the gurney. He died about 10 minutes later from what DOC Director Robert Patton said was “a massive heart attack.”

Patton said the problem occurred because Lockett’s vein collapsed.

A DOC timeline shows that an unknown quantity of the lethal drugs either absorbed into Lockett’s tissue, leaked out of his body or both. The prison had no additional lethal drugs on hand and the doctor said he could not find another vein even if drugs were available.

Cohen’s report states he was unable to find evidence that natural disease processes or cardiac condition “played any role in Mr. Lockett’s death (i.e. heart attack).”

The report states Lockett’s peripheral and deep veins had “excellent integrity” to place an IV.

Cohen reported finding “skin punctures on the extremities and right and left femoral areas,” indicating that the execution team attempted to place IVs in both arms and both sides of Lockett’s groin.

DOC’s timeline indicates that a “phlebotomist” could not find a suitable vein for the IV and that it was placed in his femoral vein, in the groin area. Phlebotomists are not licensed in Oklahoma to start IVs.

Cohen also found superficial and deep hemorrhages “indicative of failed vascular catheter access,” the release states.

The execution team’s attempts to insert the IV perforated the femoral vein, the report indicates. Contrary to statements by the state, Lockett’s veins did not collapse or “blow out,” the news release states.

Cohen also notes the “unlikelihood” that dehydration played a role in compromising IV access. DOC’s timeline shows that Lockett refused his last meal and had cut one of his arms before the execution.

The release notes “serious questions about the training of the personnel who performed the execution.”

“The Department of Corrections timeline states that the IV was set by a phlebotomist, which was confirmed by the governor’s office, but when Tulsa World questioned the assertions, both state agencies reversed their positions and said it was an EMT, whose name has not been revealed,” the release states.

A 2011 state law prohibits the release of all information about participants in executions. DOC has refused to say whether the EMT present was a paramedic, as required by its protocol.

Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University who has published numerous articles about the death penalty, said Cohen’s report indicates “extraordinary incompetence on the part of the execution team.”

“This type of incompetence by execution teams has existed for decades and it is all the more reason to lift the heavy veil of secrecy concerning executions,” she said.

Megan McCracken, an attorney with the Death Penalty Clinic at U.C. Berkeley School of Law, said problems with Lockett’s IV are “just one factor that caused his prolonged and painful death.”

“The three-drug protocol that was used exacerbated the pain and suffering that Mr. Lockett faced by needlessly paralyzing him and subjecting him to the pain of potassium chloride,” she stated in a release. “Moreover, the state had no plan for contingencies in the event that the execution did not go as planned, as clearly happened here.”

The execution marked the state’s first use of a sedative called midazolam in an execution. Two other states, Ohio and Florida, have used the drug in executions but not in the quantity that Oklahoma chose.

Mark Heath, assistant professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University, said Cohen’s investigation is “a critically important inquiry into the botched execution of Clayton Lockett.”

Heath has testified as an expert in numerous cases involving lethal injection challenges.

“However, to complete this inquiry, Dr. Cohen will need the state to provide extensive additional information beyond what the body itself revealed. I hope that Oklahoma provides everything he asks for so that we can all understand what went so terribly wrong in Mr. Lockett’s execution.”

Lockett was convicted in the 1999 death of Stephanie Neiman, 19, of Perry. He and two accomplices abducted Neiman along with two other adults and a baby.

They were taken to a rural area of Noble County, where Lockett shot Neiman twice. He ordered an accomplice to bury her despite being told she was still alive.

After Lockett’s execution, a second inmate scheduled to be executed two hours later received a stay. Charles Warner’s execution is now set for Nov. 13.

Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8306

ziva.branstetter@tulsaworld.com

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