Eight months ago, Graham Lee Brewer made the two-hour drive from Oklahoma City to McAlester, Oklahoma to witness an execution. On Thursday, he made the same trip down Interstate 40 for the same reason.
Tonight, when Oklahoma State Penitentiary executes Charles Frederick Warner, Brewer, a reporter with The Oklahoman, is not sure what will happen. And that’s because of what happened eight months ago.
On April 29, Brewer was one of 12 reporters present for the execution of Clayton Derrell Lockett. He spoke with Poynter about what happened the following day. From April:
The execution started at 6:23.
“That’s when the curtain raised and you see him on the gurney and the officials standing around him.”
By 6:33, Lockett was unconscious.
At 6:36, he started kicking.
At 6:39, officials closed the curtain.
“Once the curtain closed, it all kind of sunk in just how serious that this was,” Brewer said, “and I think at that moment, we all knew our leads had changed.”
Brewer wrote about the botched execution.
Officials closed the curtains in the execution room 16 minutes into the procedure, after Lockett convulsed several times, his chest and head rising off the gurney at multiple points.
After about 20 minutes after the blinds were closed, Patton informed witnessing press the execution was being halted.
“It’s come to my attention, I’m stopping the execution,” Patton told press gathered in the execution chamber. “We’ve had a vein failure, in which the chemicals did not make it into the offender.”
Lockett grimaced and tensed his body several times over a three-minute period before the execution was shielded from the press. After being declared unconscious 10 minutes into the process, Lockett spoke at three separate moments. The first two were inaudible, however the third time he spoke, Lockett said the word “man.”
Warner’s execution, which was supposed to happen that same night, was postponed. In August, the ACLU, The Guardian and the Oklahoma Observer filed a lawsuit against the state prison system “seeking to stop Oklahoma prison officials from selectively filtering what journalists can see during an execution.” Lauren Gambino wrote about the hearing for The Guardian. In December, a judge threw the lawsuit out. On Jan. 12, a federal appeals court denied a stay of execution, the Associated Press’ Sean Murphy reported.
On Thursday night, barring a ruling from the Supreme Court, Warner will be executed for raping and killing an 11-month-old in 1997.
We do know a few things about tonight. Thanks to renovations, there are now less seats in the room where witnesses watch executions. Last time, 12 journalists were present. On Thursday night, only five will be. From Murphy’s report:
Oklahoma prison officials have made several changes to its execution protocol since Lockett’s lethal injection, including new medical equipment for finding veins, more training for staff, and a renovated execution chamber with new audio and video equipment.
From The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington on December’s ruling:
The ruling means that when Oklahoma comes to make its next judicial killing, on 15 January, it will be able to do so with new restrictions on press access in place. The number of media witnesses will be reduced from 12 to five, the intravenous lines will be inserted into the prisoner before the press is allowed to witness the events, the audio feed will be turned off after the prisoner makes his final statement, and the prison authorities will be able to shut off all observation of the proceedings should the inmate fail to be unconscious within five minutes of the lethal chemicals being injected into him.
The Associated Press is guaranteed a spot, Brewer said, and the journalists present will enter into a lottery for the other four seats, which will all go to local journalists. This time, the microphone in the execution chamber will be turned off after the drugs are administered. And this time, like last time, if something goes wrong, officials can pull the curtain down.
“I certainly hope they don’t do it because the purpose of me being there is to see every part of the execution, including the ugly parts,” Brewer said. “I’m acting as the eyes and the ears of the public, and without access, I can’t accurately convey what’s happening.”
Correction: Originally, the headline for this story said they execution would have less observers. It should have been fewer observers. We have corrected it.