Federal Judge Dismisses Claims in Lethal Injection Lawsuit

Even after his execution, former death row inmate Clayton Lockett was at the center of another lethal injection lawsuit. In the first lawsuit, Lockett and other death row inmates claimed that the Oklahoma Department of Corrections's policy of withholding the source of drugs used in the state's lethal injection protocol was a violation of their rights to due process. After much back and forth between state and federal courts, and between Oklahoma's two courts of last resort--the Oklahoma Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals--judges finally ruled in favor of the state, and Lockett was executed.

His execution, however, did not go smoothly. The botched execution of Clayton Lockett made headlines around the nation, as doctors first struggled to find a suitable vein, and then the vein they selected in the groin area collapsed. The lethal injection drugs went into the inmates muscle tissue, but not into the blood stream. Clayton, who had been declared unconscious, groaned and said, "I'm not . . .," and, "Something's wrong." After 20 minutes, the execution was called off. After 43 minutes, Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack.

It is his botched execution and apparently painful death that led Lockett's family to file a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, members of the execution team, the doctor who oversaw the execution, and Governor Mary Fallin. The lawsuit alleged that the defendants violated Lockett's Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, calling his execution "torture."

United States District Judge Joe Heaton, however, did not agree that the claims in the lawsuit were valid. He dismissed all of the claims against those named in the lawsuit.

The judge had scathing words for the lawsuit, which he called "bombastic and hyperbolic."

Among his criticisms of the lawsuit was that the plaintiff's attorney claimed that Lockett's right to due process was violated when the attorney was not allowed to sit with the condemned inmate in the execution chamber. Judge Heaton scoffed, “Plaintiff cites no authority which gets remotely close to supporting that remarkable assertion, and the court has considerable doubt whether any constitutional violation of that sort even arguably exists.”

As for the lawsuit's allegations that the state violated the condemned man's right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, Judge Heaton asserted, "The Constitution does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain in carrying out executions."

Several Oklahoma death row inmates have approached the United States Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of the use of midazolam in lethal injections. The Supreme Court heard arguments in late April, and the Court is expected to release it's opinion before the end of the month. 

Image credit: Tommy Woodard