The Magazine

Botched Execution

May 12, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 33 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Last week’s “botched execution” of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma has rekindled the national debate about capital punishment. Not that the debate needed much rekindling. Since 1972, when the Supreme Court essentially suspended capital punishment, and 1977, when it ruled that state death penalty statutes were constitutional, the issue has divided Americans across the usual partisan lines. A substantial majority support capital punishment, but opposition has grown over time.

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Clayton Lockett

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The Scrapbook confesses to ambivalence about the subject, and acknowledges that reasonable people come down on both sides. In the case of Clayton Lockett, however, there is a certain irony as well: His execution was supposed to have been carried out by lethal injection; but the procedure seems to have been mishandled, and, in fact, Lockett died of a coronary after three-quarters of an hour. 

The irony is that lethal injection is the latest in a long line of mortuary techniques designed to make capital punishment humane in the modern world. In recent years, however, opponents have insisted that the traditional combination of drugs—intended to sedate and, eventually, stop vital functions—doesn’t work very well, constituting cruel and unusual punishment. Even the White House weighed in last week, calling the Lockett execution “inhumane.”

Perhaps so. But the fact is that the state of Oklahoma was responding to such criticism—and the refusal of certain pharmaceutical companies to allow the use of their products for such purposes—and had employed a different combination of drugs on Lockett. One might argue, in that sense, that Lockett’s suffering was caused as much by opponents as proponents of capital punishment. One might also argue that if speed and comparatively painless efficiency are the hallmarks of humane execution, then some of the older historical methods—the guillotine, for example, or firing squad—might be appropriate.

In any case, throughout this episode, The Scrapbook was struck by the habitual use of the term “botched execution” in the press, and the near-total lack of interest in why Clayton Lockett found himself on the executioner’s gurney in the first place. 

For the record, he had been convicted of the murder of a 19-year-old girl, a recent high school graduate, named Stephanie Neiman. One evening, in the late spring of 1999, Miss Neiman happened to drop off a friend named Summer Bradshaw at a house where Lockett and two accomplices were beating and robbing the occupant, a young man named Bobby Lee Bornt. Lockett and his comrades bound Neiman and Bradshaw, covered their mouths with duct tape, and raped and beat them. Then they kidnapped Bornt and his infant son, along with Neiman and her friend, and drove all four to a remote area outside Ponca City, Oklahoma.

While one of his accomplices dug a makeshift grave, Lockett demanded to know whether Neiman planned to tell police what had happened. She declined to say that she wouldn’t. So with Neiman poised over the hole in the ground, Lockett shot her, twice, with a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun. It is not entirely clear whether Stephanie Neiman was alive or dead when she fell into the grave and was buried.

So in The Scrapbook’s estimation, the death of Clayton Lockett was regrettably mishandled, but it was the death of Stephanie Neiman that was the “botched execution.” 

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