(CN) - Oklahoma prison officials illegally censored access to the botched execution of Clayton Lockett when they drew the blinds to the execution chamber before his death, The Oklahoma Observer claims in court.
The Observer, its editor Arnold Hamilton, Guardian US, and freelance journalist Katie Fretland sued Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton and Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Anita Trammell on Monday in Oklahoma City Federal Court.
They claim that while it took Lockett 30 minutes to die
on April 29, the press and other witnesses were deprived of the right to observe the execution.
"The press was also deprived of the opportunity to verify the nature and source of sounds emanating from the execution chamber, which indicated pain and suffering," the 32-page complaint states. "Because of the state's use of the viewing shade during initial and later stages of Lockett's execution, the press and public received only government-edited access to an important government proceeding. As a result, the press, and by extension the public, were deprived of the First Amendment right of access to observe the initiation and termination of the execution proceeding."
Lockett, 38, was convicted in 2000 of raping and murdering Stephanie Neiman, 19. He was convicted of shooting her with a sawed-off shotgun and watching two accomplices bury her alive.
Lockett had persuaded the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to delay his execution from March, claiming the state was buying replacement execution drugs of unknown content from unlicensed compounding pharmacies.
The purchase was due to a nationwide shortage of traditional execution drugs due to anti-death penalty advocates pressuring large drug manufacturers to stop their production, resulting in prison officials asking smaller, compounding pharmacies to produce substitute drugs.
Witnesses reported Lockett writhed in apparent agony after he was injected, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off of a pillow. He died of a head attack after the blinds were drawn. Lockett's attorney, David Autry, said the execution was "totally botched" and "a horrible thing to witness."
The defense hired Dr. Joseph Cohen, an independent forensic pathologist, to perform an autopsy. Cohen's findings
that Lockett had "excellent integrity and peripheral and deep veins" contradicted prison official claims that they had difficulty finding a vein for injection.
"The press was unable to observe Lockett's final moments or eventual death," the new complaint states. "As a result, the public was deprived of objective accounts as to whether, at the time of his death, the state was still attempting to execute Lockett, or in the alternative, attempting to provide medical care after calling off his execution."
Fretland attended Lockett's execution on behalf of the Observer and Guardian US. She said the press serves "as the eyes and ears" of the public at executions.
"The government shouldn't be allowed to effectively blindfold us when things go wrong," Fretland said in a statement Monday. "The public has a right to the whole story, not a version edited by government officials."
The plaintiffs seek an injunction and declaratory relief for violation of the First Amendment and Oklahoma Constitution. They are represented by Lee Rowland with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation in New York and Brady Henderson with the ACLU of Oklahoma Foundation.
ACLU staff attorney Lee Rowland said Monday that the First Amendment guarantees press access to executions so "the public can be informed about the government's actions and hold it accountable."
"The death penalty represents the most powerful exercise of government authority," Rowland said in a statement. "The need for public oversight is as critical at the execution stage as it is during trial."
Prison officials declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday, saying they do not comment on pending litigation.