‘Tortured To Death’

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Spare us the euphemisms. Call the so-called “botched execution” here Tuesday evening what it really was: A man was tortured in secrecy until he died from the result of that torture.

I use the word “secrecy” because we don’t know the drugs that were used to torture and then kill Charles Derrel Lockett, 38, who was sentenced to die by lethal injection. After the drugs were administered, Lockett writhed and groaned until officials halted the execution and closed the curtains on those viewing the gruesome spectacle through a window. By then it was too late.

Lockett, we were told, died 40 some minutes later of a heart attack.

Within minutes of his death, as word leaked out, Oklahoma made national and worldwide news in perhaps the worst way possible. The British Broadcasting Company covered it. It was one of the leading stories on the website of The New York Times. It will surely be covered by all three major national news networks this evening.

The term mimicked by all the media outlets was “botched execution,” but the underlying implication was that it was more than the usual red-state incompetence and right-wing weirdness. It told the story of an inhumane, “eye-for-an-eye” majority of people in a particular state, people who vote overwhelmingly for conservative politicians that not only support the death penalty but are also radical supporters of its real, ongoing practice. These same politicians also support laws that ensure the state will have a steady supply for the executioner and its prisons.

It is Oklahoma’s shame. But are Gov. Mary Fallin and her Republican-dominated government leaders even capable of feeling guilt over what happened? Probably not.

The right-wing here will surely crow that Lockett was a vicious murderer who in 1999 killed a 19-year-old woman. The woman was then buried alive. Where is the sympathy for that woman and her family? Who cares whether Lockett felt any pain or not? This will be the crux of the argument.

But that logic, as always, misses the point when it comes to the death penalty. We should strive to be a nation of laws but also a humane nation. Of course, Lockett’s crime was horrendous but by “botching” his execution through incompetence and in secrecy we’re merely responding to violence with more violence in a never-ending cycle. It’s time to end the death penalty, and Lockett’s torture and death is a perfect example why it should be ended once and for all.

The ingredients of the three-drug “cocktail”—another euphemism—used to kill Lockett remains unknown because officials don’t want to publicize the names of the companies who manufacture and sell the drugs. States are now finding it difficult to find drugs to use in executions because of growing opposition to the death penalty and companies unwilling to sell them for that purpose.

Fallin did issue a stay of execution for another inmate, Charles Warner, 46, who was scheduled to be killed right after Lockett, but that was only for 14 days. Fallin wants a review of what happened. Warner was convicted of raping and killing an 11-year-old girl in 1997. Warner’s attorney used the term “tortured to death” to describe Lockett’s execution Tuesday evening.

No one is arguing effectively that Lockett and Warner didn’t commit heinous acts, but does that mean the state should respond with its own heinous act? At the very least, we should know what drugs are being used in executions and how they work on the body. If anything in our culture should be transparent it certainly should be the process used by the government to kill its citizens.

Set Them Free

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The war on drugs has failed.

How many times do we have to say it and recognize it before there’s real reform? How many people do we have to incarcerate and humiliate before sensible policies prevail? How many billions, even trillions, of dollars in taxpayer money must we spend before basic rationality replaces zealotry?

Yes, so it’s great news that Oklahoma’s Patricia Spottedcrow, a 27-year-old mother convicted of selling $31 worth of marijuana in 2010, will get an early release from a draconian 12-year prison sentence, but as her attorney told the Tulsa World, “. . . she's certainly not the only case of this in Oklahoma. There are other Patricia Spottedcrows.”

Spottedcrow’s case highlights the disparity in drug-case sentencing. In some places in this country, for example, people have access to medical marijuana, or pot is pretty much decriminalized. Here in Oklahoma, an obsessive law-and-order political culture has filled our prisons with non-violent drug offenders, making the state rank first in the nation in the number of females it incarcerates. Surely, that ranking holds meaning, and, surely, Spottedcrow’s case is the perfect example of a state judicial and penal system that has lost its moral compass and any semblance of rationality.

I wrote about Spottedcrow’s case in 2011, pointing out that her conviction was a first offense. The mother of four entered a blind plea to selling $31 of marijuana to an informant in the Kingfisher area, and then received the draconian sentence from the late Kingfisher County District Judge Susie Pritchett. Spottedcrow’s children were in the house when she sold the marijuana, a fact that has been given as the reason for such a harsh sentence, a dubious rationale considering some violent crimes carry mandatory sentences far less than 12 years.

After the sentencing, Spottedcrow’s case received widespread media attention because of the obvious disparity between the crime and the sentence. Eventually, Gov. Mary Fallin, a staunch Republican conservative, agreed to an early release.

All of this senseless heartbreak and legal hassle remain the residue of the war on drugs declared by former President Richard Nixon some 40 years ago. This war has been decisively lost at a mind-boggling cost in terms of people’s lives and taxpayer money. As I wrote last year:

The numbers are staggering: Media reports show the United States spent $15.5 billion in 2010 on drug control efforts. More than $23 billion in federal and state money has been spent so far this year, according to DrugSense. Over the years, according to one report, the U.S. has spent at least $121 billion to arrest 37 million nonviolent people on drug charges. Meanwhile, illegal drugs remain readily available and people continue to use.

Patricia Spottedcrow, who will serve 120 days at a community-level facility before her release, is just one of those 37 million, a number that is ever growing with no end in sight. To repeat the words of her attorney, “There are other Patricia Spottedcrows,” and, yes, we need to set them free.

Saving Families, Taxpayer Dollars

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Oklahoma leads the nation in the per capita number of women serving prison sentences, a dubious national distinction. Many of the women in prison are serving time for nonviolent offenses. Some of these women are mothers, and their incarcerations often lead to family dysfunction, which creates even more problems.

Recognizing the problem, the Oklahoma House passed a bill last week that could eventually help lower the number of mothers serving prison sentences for nonviolent crimes. Let’s hope the bill gets signed into law. It’s a much-needed first step.

HB 2998, sponsored by state Rep. Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican, would establish a pilot program that would help ease the reentry of incarcerated women with children. The program would identify women with children and develop a comprehensive plan for them, which might include diversionary sentencing rather than jail time.

Oklahoma incarcerates women at twice the national average. Almost 70 percent of all women incarcerated here are serving sentences for nonviolent offenses. I’ve written about this issue for several years. Read here, here and here. Here’s a section of a 2008 post that describes the philosophy driving the high incarceration rate:

Right now, the prevailing law enforcement and state corrections philosophy, supported by neoconservative ideology, is to incarcerate as many people as possible. The basic idea is that severe punishments, including long prison sentences, will deter crime. Yet the incarceration rates keep growing. Oklahoma, for example, has the highest percentage of incarcerated women in the nation, according to the Bureau of Justice. Ultimately, this distinction should be the state’s shame, not a point of honor in a numbers game often played by political leaders and by some people who work in our judicial systems and law enforcement agencies.

In a press release about the issue, Steele said:

This bill will give women convicted of nonviolent crimes access to community-based rehabilitative services that have proven effective. As policy-makers, we can be both tough and smart on crime. The average prison stay for nonviolent women is less than a year, but the impact on their children is lifelong and devastating. In-home rehabilitative services will keep these families together and allow Oklahoma women to receive the help they desperately need.

Again, this is a first step in a problem that needs even more serious solutions and initiatives. Keeping nonviolent women out of prison and ensuring they get treatment and counseling saves families and taxpayer dollars.

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