DENVER (CN) – The botched execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett, which sparked public outrage and halted other executions in Oklahoma, was an “innocent misadventure,” the 10th Circuit ruled.
In a ruling issued Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit described the 2014 execution as an “isolated mishap” and dismissed a lawsuit Lockett’s estate brought against Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, prison officials and execution team members that asserted several constitutional violations.
“Everyone acknowledges that Lockett suffered during his execution,” Judge Gregory Phillips said in the ruling.
Phillips said that while the appeals court accepted that Lockett’s execution was “unnecessarily prolonged and horribly painful,” it did not constitute a cruel or unusual punishment.
Lockett, convicted of the 1999 killing of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman, died 43 minutes after being injected with a combination of drugs that had never been used by any state during any execution before.
Witnesses of the execution say Lockett began twitching and convulsing and clenched his teeth in a grimace of pain as he tried to raise himself from the gurney.
Prison officials tried to stop the execution 33 minutes after it began, when they realized the injection vein in Lockett’s groin had collapsed, preventing some of the drugs from entering his bloodstream. They later told state investigators that the execution chamber was a “bloody mess” due to failed attempts to tap a second femoral intravenous line.
A cloth placed over the injection site to shield Lockett’s naked groin from witnesses and out of concern for his “privacy and dignity,” blocked the execution team’s view and was determined to be the “major reason” for problems with the execution, according to the 10th Circuit ruling.
Phillips said in the ruling that the injection problem was “not something designed to cause additional pain” and that those involved in the execution did not violate any clearly established law.
“Simply put, the Eighth Amendment does not require ‘the avoidance of all risk of pain in carrying out executions,’” Phillips said, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Baze v. Rees, which upheld the constitutionality of a particular cocktail of drugs used in executions.
The judge wrote, “Here, the amended complaint describes exactly the sort of ‘innocent misadventure’ or ‘isolated mishap’ that the Baze plurality excuses from the definition of cruel and unusual punishment.”
The 10th Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision to dismiss the case brought against Fallin and others, including prison warden Anita Trammell and Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton.
The appeals court agreed that those named in the suit, including the doctor who administered the drug but who is not a government employee, are entitled to “qualified immunity,” which shields public officials from liability when they are “reasonably performing” their public duties.