Executioners’ Reflections Reveal a Twisted Side of the Death Penalty


"Man … I'm not … something's wrong."

Those were some of Clayton Lockett's last words on Tuesday during his botched execution in Oklahoma, according to a KFOR reporter. Lockett's attorney said his body started to twitch before "the convulsing got worse. It looked like his whole upper body was trying to lift off the gurney. For a minute, there was chaos." Lockett's vein had "exploded" during the procedure, according to a doctor observing the situation. But the blinds had been closed. Onlookers couldn't see the disturbing ordeal that dragged on for 43 minutes until Lockett finally died from a heart attack. 

When we think about the death penalty, we often think about the person getting executed (Was he a monster?). We most certainly think about the victim and the victim's family (Will they watch the execution?). But we rarely think about the people who actually carry out the process — the people whose words shed considerable doubt on the validity of the death penalty.

Jeffrey Toobin opened a December New Yorker piece about capital punishment with these words: "Pity the modern executioner. The Supreme Court has burdened him with obligations that reflect considerable ambivalence about his profession."

The Eighth Amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment. Though medical experts have delineated a specific method to perform lethal injection, it's pretty clear by now that it simply doesn't always work. When Joseph Clark was executed in Ohio in December 2006, it took 22 minutes for the technicians to find a vein. Shortly after the start of the injection, the vein collapsed and Clark's arm began to swell. He raised his head off the stretcher and said five times, "It don't work. It don't work." The curtains surrounding the stretcher were then closed while the technicians worked for 30 minutes to find another vein.

According to a Columbia Law report, if the first drug of the three-drug cocktail fails, the person would be awake when the second drug starts suffocating him. "He also would feel a torturous burning when the third drug entered his veins. But the paralysis from the second drug would prevent him from showing any distress. [He] would be tortured to death, but only he would know it."

The point is this: There is very little question that this procedure can be cruel and unusual, and the executioners themselves attest to this. In the 2000 Sound Portraits radio documentary, "Witness to an Execution," several Texas executioners share unnerving and eye-opening experiences. With somber, sometimes quivering voices, they recollect various executions and walk the listener through the process. 

One man, Chaplain Brazzil, said that after the inmate is strapped down, all the officers leave. And then it's just him and the warden in the chamber. A medical team enters and they will establish an IV in each arm. Usually in about three minutes, they have the inmate hooked up to the lines. He's lying on the gurney and executioner Jim Willett and Brazzil are in the chamber with the inmate. Brazzil said, "I usually put my hand on their leg right below their knee, you know, and I usually give 'em a squeeze, let 'em know I'm right there. You can feel the trembling, the fear that's there, the anxiety that's there. You can feel the heart surging, you know. You can see it pounding through their shirt."

The warden then stands at the head of the inmate and the Chaplain stands with his hand on the inmate's knee. The warden asks the condemned man if he has any last words he'd like to say. The warden said that some inmates decline to speak, some sing, some pray. Some apologize. Some will declare, for one last time, that an innocent man is being killed. "And then there have been some men who have been executed that I knew, and I've had them tell me goodbye," one warden said.

You can feel the trembling, the fear that's there, the anxiety that's there. You can feel the heart surging, you know. You can see it pounding through their shirt.

In Texas, the prisons use a syringe that is administered through an IV tube from another room. The Chaplain says, "I've had several of them where [I'm] watching their last breath go from their bodies and their eyes never unfix from mine. I mean actually lock together. And I can close my eyes now and see those eyes. My feelings and my emotions are extremely intense at that time. I've never ... I've never really been able to describe it. And I guess in a way I'm kind of afraid to describe it. I've never really delved into that part of my feelings yet."

Similar to what happened in Oklahoma on Tuesday, there are times the drugs don't work as they're meant to. Carlos DeLuna's case is a sad example. He was put to death in 1989, despite serious doubts about his guilt. His chaplain, Chaplain Pickett, recalled the details of the process in a Columbia Law investigation of the case. "Pickett had promised Carlos that he would be asleep within 12 seconds. But after the 12-second mark passed, Carlos raised his head and fixed his brown eyes on Pickett again. That scared Pickett. 'I knew the time had passed. The other guys had gone to sleep. … And I wonder, to this day, what was he thinking.'"

If I wanted to be paranoid, I could say he was thinking, 'You lied to me.'

Over 20 seconds into the execution, DeLuna raised his head again. Pickett said, "Those big, brown eyes were wide open. Here I am, five inches from his knee, five feet from his face, and he's looking straight at me. … And I don't know what the question was in his brain. I don't know what he was thinking. If I wanted to be paranoid, I could say he was thinking, 'You lied to me.'"

After 24 seconds, the paralytic drug flowed into the tubes. DeLuna closed his eyes and didn't raise his head again. The whole process was supposed to take six minutes, but DeLuna was not pronounced dead until 10 minutes later. "The extra minutes were excruciating for Pickett," the investigation reads. "No one will ever know what they were like for Carlos DeLuna."

Pickett didn't sleep for the next five nights. "That's when I started thinking," he told the investigators, "We are killing innocent people."

As Jim Willett reflected on all the executions he'd witnessed and participated in, he said, "I'll be retiring next year. And to tell you the truth, this is something I won't miss a bit. There are times when I'm standing there, watching those fluids start to flow, and wonder whether what we're doing here is right."

"It's something I'll be thinking about for the rest of my life."

All Images: AP

Note: Excerpts of this article were taken from the January piece "Chilling Testimony Of Death Row Executioners Casts Dark Shadow Over Entire System"


Contact or tweet Laura with thoughts or questions.