Death Penalty

Inmate's 43-minute execution didn't violate clearly established law, 10th Circuit rules

  • Print

Gavel and syringe.

A botched execution that continued for 43 minutes, causing the condemned man to writhe and grimace in pain, didn’t violate clearly established law regarding cruel and unusual punishment, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that the Oklahoma inmate, Clayton Lockett, suffered during the execution, but that there was no clearly established Eighth Amendment violation. The court upheld dismissal of the suit for damages filed by Lockett’s estate. Slate and the Tulsa World covered the decision.

“The Supreme Court’s death-penalty opinions recognize that executions can go awry,” the three-judge panel said in an opinion (PDF) by Judge Gregory Phillips. An isolated mishap alone doesn’t give rise to an Eighth Amendment violation, the court said, citing Supreme Court precedent.

Because there was no violation of clearly established law, Oklahoma officials involved in the execution are entitled to qualified immunity, the court said.

Lockett had suffered during the execution because the drugs he received had leaked into surrounding tissue. The problem went undiscovered, the court said, because the execution team covered Lockett’s groin area where the IV was placed due to “concerns for Lockett’s dignity and privacy.”

The appeals court also rejected a claim by Lockett’s estate that he was entitled to counsel throughout the execution.

In a concurrence, Judge Nancy Moritz said the majority said it was deciding the case based on qualified immunity, but it went on to unnecessarily decide constitutional questions.

Hat tip to the Marshall Project and How Appealing.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.