A Lethal Injection Nightmare

Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

William Happ. Dennis McGuire. Clayton Lockett. These names may mean nothing to you. But they all have one thing in common – midazolam. It’s the newest drug that prisons are using to carry out lethal injection sentences.

But the drug is untested when it comes to executions, and its use has produced some horrific results.

Midazolam is a benzodiazepine, or a drug primarily used to treat psychological disorders. The medication works by reducing nerve activity in the brain and spinal cord. According to the NIH, midazolam is given to children before medical procedures or before anesthesia for surgery to cause drowsiness, relieve anxiety, and prevent any memory of the event. But when used in a lethal-injection cocktail, it hasn’t always worked properly.

In Oklahoma, Lockett was sentenced to death by lethal injection after being convicted of shooting 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman and watching as two accomplices buried her alive in 1999. Lockett was injected with a cocktail of drugs that included midazolam on April 29, 2014.

But, the drug did not relax the man into a painless death. Witnesses say Lockett lifted his head after being injected, convulsed, and tried to lift himself off the gurney. Prison officials tried to stop the execution, but it was too late for Lockett. He later died of a heart attack.

Happ confessed to raping and murdering 21-year-old Angie Crowley in 1986. The inmate was injected with a three-drug cocktail that included midazolam at the Florida State Prison on October 15, 2013, and was pronounced dead at 6:16pm ET. He apparently “remained conscious longer and made more body movements after losing consciousness than other people executed recently by lethal injection under the old formula,” the Associated Press reported.

McGuire was convicted in Ohio for the rape and murder Joy Stewart in 1989. Stewart was pregnant at the time. Her body was found by two hikers. McGuire was lethally injected with a mix of drugs that included midazolam and died on January 17, 2014. The AP reported that McGuire was still for almost five minutes then emitted a loud snort over several minutes. He also opened and shut his mouth several times as his stomach shook.

Midazolam is just one of several drugs that different states are testing. Pentobarbital was the old go-to injection drug, but the U.S. supply started to dry up when European manufacturers discovered their product was being used to end lives.

Activists sounded off after Lockett’s “botched” execution.

“What happened last night to Clayton Lockett is shocking in anyone’s book. But this is far from the first ‘botched execution’ in the USA, whether by electrocution, asphyxiation, or lethal injection using the ‘traditional’ three-drug protocol,” said Amnesty International researcher Rob Freer.

In a joint statement, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and other groups demanded that, “The state halt all executions until an independent third-party can carry out an investigation with full transparency.” The organizations claim, “The death penalty is clearly untenable and cannot continue. The state of Oklahoma shrouded the entire execution process in secrecy and undermined public confidence in our criminal justice system.”

And even the White House is chiming in.

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

The country’s next execution will take place on May 13 in Texas when Robert Campbell is due to face lethal injection.

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