Skip navigation

Doctor Involved in Botched Oklahoma Execution Unsuccessfully Sued in Federal Court

Doctor Involved in Botched Oklahoma Execution Unsuccessfully Sued in Federal Court

by Christopher Zoukis

The family of Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett, whose botched execution caused international outrage, filed a federal lawsuit that accused the doctor who oversaw the April 29, 2014 execution of “human medical experimentation in torturing [him] to death.” The district court dismissed the case and the family has filed an appeal.

David Lane, a civil rights attorney, said he obtained information that Dr. Johnny Zellmer, an emergency room physician at McAlester Regional Medical Center, was filling in for another doctor on the execution team on two days’ notice and was poorly trained in execution protocols. Lane stated, “I called [Zellmer] and said, ‘Dr. Johnny, I’m a civil rights lawyer in Denver and I have inside information that you participated in the execution of Clayton Lockett. If you tell me you had nothing to do with that execution, I will not sue you,’” Zellmer reportedly replied, “Y’all have to talk to the prison about that.”

Lockett’s execution attracted widespread condemnation after witnesses reported seeing him writhing and groaning on the death gurney during the lethal injection process. The drug used to kill Lockett, Midazolam, had been used in other executions that did not proceed smoothly, including one in Arizona where it took the prisoner nearly two hours to die. Lockett’s execution lasted almost 45 minutes and involved failed IV lines and, according to the lawsuit, “a lack of training” on the part of Zellmer and other participants. Although Lockett’s execution was eventually called off, he died shortly afterwards due to a heart attack.

Oklahoma has a statute that shields the identity of execution team members, but Lane argued he has a First Amendment right to sue on behalf of Lockett’s family. “I know it was Dr. Zellmer who participated in this execution, and to deny me the right to sue the doctor who killed Clayton Lockett is to deny his family their civil rights.”

Also named in the suit were Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, DOC director Robert C. Patton, State Penitentiary Warden Anita Trammell and various unidentified members of the execution team.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, and the district court stayed discovery pending the resolution of the motion. On June 23, 2015, the court entered judgment in favor of the defendants, dismissing all claims against them.

The district court held that “Eleventh Amendment immunity precludes claims for monetary damages against state officials sued in their official capacity, as such claims are essentially ones against the State itself. Therefore, to the extent the complaint asserts official capacity claims against these defendants, they must be dismissed based on Eleventh Amendment immunity.”

The other claims, including a claim related to the use of compounded drugs in the execution, were dismissed based on qualified immunity. “[T]he claimed constitutional violations asserted here as to Mr. Lockett are not based on standards that were ‘clearly established’ at the time of his execution,” the court wrote. “The law therefore recognizes that these defendants should not be held personally liable for any violation which may have occurred.”

The court said “hyperbolic allegations” in the complaint that used terms such as torture were “bombast” and “conclusory.”

“It is an absolute travesty that the judge believes that when you torture a man to death and engage in human medical experimentation, as doctor Johnny Zellmer did on Clayton Lockett, that somehow that does not state any claim under the Constitution of the United States of America,” Lane said.

Lockett’s family filed an appeal with the Tenth Circuit in July 2015, which remains pending. See: Lockett v. Fallin, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:14-cv-01119-HE.

Additional sources:,,, The Oklahoman


Related legal case

Lockett v. Fallin