The Guardian and its U.S.-based Oklahoma Observer, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma filed a federal lawsuit Monday demanding the Oklahoma Department of Corrections allow witnesses, including journalists, to see everything that occurs from the time the condemned entered the execution chamber until he or she leaves it.
"The State of Oklahoma violated the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of the press to witness executions so the public can be informed about the government's actions and hold it accountable," said Lee Rowland, a staff attorney with the ACLU. "The death penalty represents the most powerful exercise of government authority. The need for public oversight is as critical at the execution stage as it is during trial."
Their complaint stems from Lockett's botched execution, in which he ultimately died of a heart attack after he began convulsing and writhing. Officials lowered the blinds, and witnesses were not allowed to see what came next.
"The press was unable to observe Lockett's final moments or eventual death," the new lawsuit states. "As a result, the public was deprived of objective accounts as to whether, at the time of his death, the State was still attempting to execute Lockett, or in the alternative, attempting to provide medical care after calling off his execution."
Only later did Oklahoma DOC director Robert Patton reveal the technician had trouble inserting the needle into Lockett's groin, through which would be administered a controversially mysterious cocktail of lethal drugs. An independent autopsy revealed the trouble inserting the needle caused the vein to collapse, meaning the drugs spilled out or went into tissue, rather than the bloodstream.
"At an execution, the press serves as the public's eyes and ears," Katie Fretland, a Guardian reporter and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "The government shouldn't be allowed to effectively blindfold us when things go wrong."
"The public has a right to the whole story, not a version edited by government officials," she said.
Lockett's execution is one of three to go sideways just this year, and the problems have been blamed on states' inability to acquire the drugs used in executions because many pharmaceutical companies have refused to manufacture them.