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After Botched Execution Oklahoma Restricts Media Access

In the wake of a botched execution, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections adopted new rules on September 30, 2014, severely limiting media access to executions.

Media representatives and other observers waited in a viewing room, to witness the April 29, 2014 execution of Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett. The blind concealing the execution chamber remained drawn, however, preventing observers from witnessing prison officials escorting Lockett into the chamber, strapping him to the gurney, and struggling repeatedly to insert intravenous lines into his veins.

The blind was lifted just before officials began administering the lethal drugs. Several minutes later, Lockett was obviously suffering, as he struggled and attempted to speak. When Lockett’s distress continued, officials closed the blind, concealing the execution chamber from view for the remainder of his execution.

Although witnesses could not see what was happening in the execution chamber, they clearly heard sounds “indicating pain and suffering.”

Officials eventually called off the execution, but then pronounced Lockett dead more than 20 minutes later. Witnesses were permitted to observe only a few excruciating minutes of the nearly two hour execution.

On August 25, 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Oklahoma sued prison officials over their handling of Lockett’s execution. Brought on behalf of The Guardian and The Oklahoma Observer, the suit alleges that officials violated the First Amendment and Oklahoma constitutional right of the public and press to witness government proceedings, including public executions.

“Our lawsuit asks the court to recognize the media and other witnesses’ First Amendment right to view executions without interruption, from when the condemned enters the execution chamber until the execution has concluded,” the ACLU explained. “We also ask that the court ensure Oklahoma authorities take steps to protect this right.”

Noting that the government effectively “edited” the version of what happened in the execution chamber, the ACLU argues that press reports and public conversation in the aftermath of Lockett’s execution were improperly curtailed.

“The death penalty represents the most powerful exercise of government authority - the intentional ending of a human life,” the ACLU notes. “Without media access to executions, the public has no way to assess the propriety and lawfulness of the death penalty, or to otherwise exercise oversight over this critical stage of the criminal justice process.”

Following the Lockett debacle, Oklahoma temporarily halted executions. It appears, however, that the purpose of the suspension was to enact new rules, sharply curtailing media access to executions.

Rules in effect during Lockett’s execution permitted twelve media representatives to witness executions. The September 30, 2014 rules slash that number to five. Local media and the Associated Press get two seats, and a “lottery” is conducted for the remaining three seats, with preference given to Oklahoma-based media. The new rules also extend the existing ban on all electronic or mechanical recording devices, including cameras and tape recorders.

The previous rule provided that media representatives would be escorted from the viewing room back to the media center “after completion of the execution.” However, the new rules expressly address the Lockett fiasco. If “the offender remains conscious” after five minutes, the Corrections Director now has unlimited discretion to “order the curtains to the witness viewing room be closed, and if necessary, for witnesses to be removed from the facility.” The rules do not specify what would make it “necessary” to expel witnesses, permitting removal for virtually any reason, or no reason at all.

We will report on any significant developments in the litigation.

See: Oklahoma Observer v. Patton, 73 F. Supp. 3d 1318 - Dist. Court, WD Oklahoma 2014.

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