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Tulsa World Editorial: Execution fiasco must never be repeated
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Tulsa World Editorial: Execution fiasco must never be repeated

Fiasco must never be repeated

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There's no sugar coating Tuesday evening's botched execution of murderer Clayton Lockett.

It was a fiasco.

It made Oklahoma look barbaric and incompetent to the world.

It shifted public attention away from Lockett's crimes and created perverse sympathy for a man who had earned his way into the death chamber by committing unmerciful atrocities.

It will, no doubt, reinvigorate legal challenges to capital punishment in the state, adding more delays to a process that is already unjustly long for widows and orphans left by cold-blooded murderers.

In short, it was a horrible mess that undermines public confidence in government and justice, and it must never, ever be repeated.

The facts: Oklahoma assured courts that it knew what it was doing when it decided to use a new mixture of lethal drugs in its execution process. When those drugs were injected into Lockett, a vein "exploded." He writhed against the restraints that held him to the execution table as witnesses looked on in horror. Sixteen minutes into the process, prison officials concealed what was happening by closing blinds between the witnesses and the death chamber. Forty-three minutes after the process began, Lockett died of a massive heart attack.

As a result, the scheduled execution of child rapist and murderer Charles Warner, scheduled for later Tuesday, was delayed for at least two weeks.

Any sympathy we have for Lockett is minimized by the memory that he shot 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman twice and ordered his accomplices to bury her alive. We have no sympathy for Warner, who ends up with at least 14 days to live on borrowed time. We have enormous sympathy for the family members of their victims, who have become all but forgotten in this drama because of the farcical final scene.

The blundered execution must be fully and impartially investigated and strong measures must be taken against anyone found culpable. Executions are about holding criminals accountable for their crimes. The people conducting those executions — from the prison guard to the top of state government — must also be accountable for their roles. Let the chips fall where they may.

Then the state must reconsider how it executes criminals. The method clearly doesn't work. The Constitution allows us to execute. It does not allow us to torture. Oklahoma capital punishment must be constitutional and publicly defensible. Anything else is unacceptable. Until the state has such a process — and that may not be for a very long time — all executions should stop.

That of course leads to a more ultimate question: Should the Lockett debacle lead the state to abandon capital punishment completely?

Tuesday night's events will not change the minds of zealots on either side of that debate. Indeed, from what we have seen, it has made their rhetoric even more strident.

But the grisly nature of Tuesday night's shambles could shift the thinking in the vital middle of the state's population. A mixture of horror at Tuesday's events, embarrassment for the state, frustration at official incompetence, and disgust at how the process blurs our focus could shift public thinking and result in a reconsideration of capital punishment.

We suspect that shift won't occur, but we will watch closely for its signs. Oklahoma will have a death penalty as long as its people want one. If they decide that there are more efficient, effective and appropriate ways of accomplishing the legitimate goal of public retribution for the worst crimes, then the policy will change — with our support.

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