Littwin: The rush to more botched executions |

Littwin: The rush to more botched executions

Now we can understand why John Hickenlooper decided to grant Nathan Dunlap his temporary reprieve last year.

It wasn’t for Dunlap, the multiple murderer who had committed crimes worthy of the worst punishment. The temporary reprieve was for the rest of us.

What happened in Oklahoma — the horribly botched execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett — showed why we shouldn’t want any part of that in Colorado, which hasn’t executed anyone since 1997.

In Oklahoma, state-sanctioned killing would become state-enabled barbarism. And it was Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin who, unlike Hickenlooper, had pushed — and pushed hard — to make sure the execution took place.

She didn’t slide the needle into the vein, which, it turned out, would be located in Lockett’s groin — because they couldn’t find a suitable vein in his arms or legs. But she might as well have. She fought the courts that had ruled against the execution. She pushed for the execution even though they were using a cocktail of untested drugs. She went ahead even though some had warned there was a distinct chance of failure.

The failure was clear enough when Lockett began writhing in pain and calling out. Officials closed the curtains so the witnesses couldn’t see more. Later, officials would say a vein had been “blown” and that the drugs were leaking. It had all gone so wrong, in fact, that the execution was called off in mid-procedure. And yet 10 minutes after the execution had supposedly ended, Lockett died of a heart attack. Or was it torture?

And as if the day hadn’t gone sufficiently wrong, it turned out that a Taser had been used on Lockett when he resisted leaving his cell in order to be X-rayed prior to his execution.

You don’t have to feel sorry for Lockett. He was on death row because, in a robbery gone wrong, he had kidnapped and shot a 19-year-old woman and then had her buried alive in a ditch.

But you do have to wonder how Oklahoma — which is the leader in per-capita executions — could plan an execution that would turn into the new definition of cruel and unusual punishment. Fallin was forced to issue a stay on the planned second execution for all of two weeks, but it will be much longer than that before the state-sanctioned death machine is rolling again.

The story begins not with the night of the botched execution, though, but with the choice to use untested lethal drugs. Lockett and Charles Warner, both convicted killers scheduled to be executed, had sued to learn the source of the drug cocktail. Oklahoma, like many states, doesn’t release such information. Not surprisingly, secrecy is a major piece of the death-penalty culture. Most large drugmakers have already dropped out of the execution business, so many states have turned to compound makers, which are unregulated.

But death-busy states like Oklahoma can’t seem to find enough of the stuff, leading to the obvious question: Just how hard should a state have to work to kill its killers?

It was made that much harder when a district judge agreed with Lockett and Warner that the state must reveal the source of the lethal drugs. The case made its way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling. But Fallin wouldn’t accept the court’s decision, saying it didn’t have jurisdiction and that she planned to go ahead with the executions anyway.

This seemed outrageous, even in Oklahoma, where it looked like a constitutional crisis might be underway. But after a few state legislators threatened impeachment, the court reversed itself. And farce would soon meet tragedy head-on.

The most compelling argument for the death penalty is nearly always the crime itself. Warner, who also was supposed to die that night, had raped and killed an infant. They invented the word “heinous” for crimes like that.

But the most compelling arguments against the death penalty would include nearly everything else, starting with the fact that it’s nearly impossible to administer the punishment equitably. Convicted murderers are sentenced to die disproportionately according to race, gender, geography, the ability to hire a good lawyer and how they scored on an IQ test.

And then there are those who have been wrongly convicted. A new study by the Academy of Sciences predicts that 4 percent of people on death row are innocent. The Death Penalty Information Center lists 144 prisoners on death row who have been exonerated since 1973.

It’s no wonder that all European countries and all in the Western Hemisphere — except the United States — have abandoned the death penalty. Instead, we remain alongside China and Iran and the others struggling to get out of the 16th century.

It’s no wonder that some governors, like Gov. John Kitzhaber, of Oregon, would say, “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer, and I will not allow further executions while I am governor.”

Hickenlooper, facing the prospect of an execution, delayed Dunlap’s indefinitely. In announcing his decision, he spoke of the “inherent inequity” in the system. He would say, “Part of the question was around this case but also around the death penalty. Is it just and moral? We make a decision to take this person’s life. Is it a benefit to the world?”

If you oppose the death penalty, the question was whether Hickenlooper had gone far enough. But politically, it was clear the risk he was taking. Polls show a majority of Coloradans favor the death penalty. And each of his Republican opponents have promised, if elected, to see Dunlap executed as quickly as possible.

You wonder if they would consult Fallin on how to make it happen.

Mike Littwin’s column runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.


Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User


A kick in the grass by Music Festival

I read with chagrin the announcement by the Aspen Music Festival of their intention to limit seating on the Karetsky Lawn to 90 pods of four persons each at a performance cost of $25 to…

See more