Journalism, religion and a botched execution in Oklahoma

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What was it like?

How do you feel?

Years ago, when I covered the state prison system for The Oklahoman and began serving as an official media witness for executions, those were the kinds of questions friends asked.

Truth be told, I felt numb.

I mean, I knew I had watched someone die. But I did so in a controlled, sanitized environment. A needle was inserted into a convicted killer’s arm — like someone receiving anesthesia for surgery — and the person lost consciousness. Within a few minutes, a time of death was declared.

The process was so routine, in most cases, that I wrote a behind-the-scenes account in 2000 of a “typical” execution day in Oklahoma:

McALESTER — At 6 a.m., before the sun has time to scale the towering white walls of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, Roger James Berget opens his eyes.

Not that Berget, Oklahoma inmate No. 98711, has any choice.

Eighteen hours before his scheduled execution, correctional officers stand over the condemned murderer and order him to wake up.

The officers strip-search him and make him shower in his shackles before giving him new clothes — a prison shirt and jeans — in which to die.

After he dresses, they lead him up the hill from the underground, death-row “H-Unit” to the main part of the penitentiary.

Inside the prison infirmary, he’s X-rayed to ensure he has no contraband on him — or in him — that he could use to hurt himself before the state can carry out his court-ordered lethal injection.

Berget, 39, a pale, thin man with a short, scruffy beard, a ponytail and tattooed arms, has spent the past seven days in a solitary “high-max” cell, away from fellow prisoners while awaiting his date with death.

After the X-ray, he’s taken back down the hill and placed in a special holding cell next to the execution chamber.

Fast-forward 14 years, and my home state of Oklahoma is all over the news, and rightly so, after a botched execution involving the state’s first time using a new lethal drug combination.

The anything-but-routine lede from the Tulsa World:

McALESTER — The execution of convicted killer Clayton Lockett was botched Tuesday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary before he died of a massive heart attack. The event prompted officials to postpone a second execution that had been scheduled for two hours later.

Lockett was given execution drugs and reacted violently, kicking and grimacing while lifting his head off the gurney to which he was strapped. He was pronounced dead at 7:06 p.m. inside the execution chamber — 43 minutes after the process began — Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said.

In a media conference, Patton said Lockett’s veins “exploded” during the execution, which began at 6:23 p.m. The inmate died from what Patton called a “massive heart attack.” The death occurred after the execution process had been halted.

In its daily religion headlines email today, the Pew Research Center included the Oklahoma execution as the top item, despite no overtly religious content in The Associated Press story to which Pew linked, and I find no fault with that. This is obviously a story with strong moral — and religious — overtones.

In perusing the major media coverage, CNN, in particular, seems to nail the moral angle:

(CNN) – A botched lethal injection in Oklahoma has catapulted the issue of U.S. capital punishment back into the international spotlight, raising new questions about the drugs being used and the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

“We have a fundamental standard in this country that even when the death penalty is justified, it must be carried out humanely — and I think everyone would recognize that this case fell short of that standard,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.

What went wrong Tuesday in Oklahoma “will not only cause officials in that state to review carefully their execution procedures and methods,” said Richard W. Garnett, a former Supreme Court law clerk who now teaches criminal and constitutional law at the University of Notre Dame, “it will also almost prompt many Americans across the country to rethink the wisdom, and the morality, of capital punishment.”

“The Constitution allows capital punishment in some cases, and so the decision whether to use it or abandon it, and the moral responsibility for its use and misuse, are in our hands,” he said.

If my friends are any indication, the botched execution certainly has inspired soul searching.

One friend posted on Facebook:

I am very, very proud to say I’m from Oklahoma City. I can’t say how embarrassed and ashamed I am to say I’m from Oklahoma. What happened last night with the execution is a disgrace. I was never anti-death penalty. But now? Yeah. This is getting out of hand. No reasonable person can say what happened last night was right, unless we aspire to be as inhumane and cruel as the people we claim to punish with these executions.

Another said:

I agree with the President.

The vagaries of medicine can’t be altered by the will of headstrong voters. This was inevitable. This was shameful.

Are there any holy ghosts — missing religious elements that need to be tackled — in the media coverage? Probably. I’d love to see religious leaders and ordinary people of faith weigh in on the death penalty and their reaction to the botched execution. I’d love to see them asked: Does the manner of Lockett’s death make you any more or less supportive of capital punishment, and why? I’d love to see thoughtful coverage that gives all sides an opportunity to share their opinions and insights and, when applicable, how religious beliefs inform those perspectives.

I will be interested, too, to see what, if anything, the family of the woman killed by Lockett has to say beyond these pre-execution details from the World:

Lockett was convicted in the 1999 murder of Stephanie Neiman, 19, of Perry.

In a handwritten statement before Tuesday’s execution, Neiman’s parents, Susie and Steve Neiman, said: “God blessed us with our precious daughter, Stephanie, for 19-years. Stephanie loved children. She worked in vacation Bible school and always helped with our church nativity scenes. She was the joy of our life. We are thankful this day has finally arrived and justice will be served.”

For every killer, there is a victim.

In a case such as this, that’s easy to forget.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Johannes Oecolampadius

    Thanks for remembering the victim, even if only at the end. I’m a little puzzled at the widespread outrage, which seems media manufactured and a little like moral posturing. There is no humane way to kill someone. That’s the point. We need hack people’s heads off or use other “disturbing” methods, but it seems like the goal was accomplished here. Capital punishment means killing the killer. This one had a state-induced heart attack, which is how many people who’ve killed absolutely no 19 year old girls die.

    • Reformed Catholic

      You tend to wonder where that moral posturing and outrage is when there are hundreds killed at ‘family planning’ clinics throughout the US as ‘inconvenient’ results of a wrong choice.

    • helen

      Firing squad used to be efficient … and quick.

    • Kullervo

      I think that lethal injection is far more disturbing than a firing squad.

    • Donalbain

      Yeah.. torturing someone to death. Who gets upset about that?!

      • James Stagg

        Did you mean the killer or the victim?

  • Johannes Oesch

    There might be another ghost behind the ocean: Rumor has it, that European sanctions forbid European chemical companies to sell drugs for executions to US authorities. Therefore Oklahoma had to use a different formula.

  • ChristinaDunigan

    Interesting how there was no outrage after the botched execution of Sarah Brown. The execution was halted after two attempts at lethal injection left her blind, mentally disabled, mute, and unable to walk. She lingered for five years before dying.

    Sarah had been given no trial, no appeal, no representation, and no due process. Her crime was simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her executioner was “hero” abortionist George Tiller.

    http://realchoice.blogspot.kr/2014/04/two-botched-executions.html

  • James Stagg

    Look at it this way: Lockett got a look at Hell, and then 40 minutes or so of conversion time. Sounds like a definite benefit for a confirmed torturer/killer.


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