WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Friday called the botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate "deeply troubling" and announced that he's going to ask the attorney general to analyze problems surrounding the application of the death penalty in the United States.
In his first public comments on the case of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett, the president, who formerly taught constitutional law, expressed conflicting feelings about the death penalty and said Americans need to "ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions around these issues."
Obama said the death penalty is warranted in some cases, specifically mentioning mass murder and child murder, and said Lockett's crimes were "heinous." But he said the death penalty's application in the United States is problematic, with evidence of racial bias and eventual exoneration of some death row inmates.
"All these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied," said Obama said, who was asked about the Oklahoma execution at a White House news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "And this situation in Oklahoma I think just highlights some of the significant problems there."
Obama has been more vocal about his concerns involving race and criminal justice in his second term. He has asked the Justice Department to recommend more applications for clemency to correct sentencing injustices.
The state of Oklahoma attempted to carry out Lockett's death sentence Tuesday by lethal injection, using a drug combination that had not been previously used in the state. Lockett convulsed violently during the execution and tried to lift his head after a doctor declared him unconscious, then died of an apparent heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began.
"What happened in Oklahoma is deeply troubling," Obama said when asked about international condemnation of U.S. application of the death penalty in light of Lockett's case. He said he'll be asking Attorney General Eric Holder and others "to get me an analysis of what steps have been taken, not just in this particular instance, but more broadly in this area."
The Justice Department indicated its review would focus more on how executions are carried out rather than the issues of race and wrongful convictions that Obama said also should be discussed.
"The department is currently conducting a review of the federal protocol used by the Bureau of Prisons, and has a moratorium in place on federal executions in the meantime. At the president's direction, the department will expand this review to include a survey of state-level protocols and related policy issues," Justice said in a statement late Friday.
Lockett was already a four-time felon when he was convicted by a jury in 2000 of murder, rape, kidnapping, burglary and other charges and received his death penalty sentence. The murder victim was 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman, who came upon Lockett and two accomplices as they were beating a man in front of his 9-month-old son during a robbery.
Neiman and a friend came to the house while the robbery was in progress, and the robbers bound the two women with duct tape and raped Neiman's friend. The three men then drove all four victims, including the baby, to a remote area, where Lockett shot Neiman with a sawed-off shotgun after she refused to say she wouldn't report them to police. Lockett then watched as his two accomplices buried her alive.
A spokesman for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva said Lockett's prolonged execution could amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international human rights law. Rupert Colville said Lockett's was the second problematic execution in the U.S. this year after Dennis McGuire's death in Ohio on Jan. 16 with an allegedly untested combination of drugs.
"The apparent cruelty involved in these recent executions simply reinforces the argument that authorities across the United States should impose an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty and work for abolition of this cruel and inhuman practice," Colville told reporters Friday.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin had called on Wednesday for an investigation of Lockett's execution to be conducted by the state's Department of Public Safety. She also said she would issue a stay on the execution of Charles Warner, who had been scheduled to be executed two hours after Lockett using the same drug combination.
Department of Public Safety spokesman Capt. George Brown said Friday that the autopsy, being performed in Dallas, is expected to be finished in eight to 12 weeks.
The drugs intended for Warner were never used. Oklahoma Assistant Attorney General Kindanne Jones said in a letter Friday that attorneys for Lockett and Warner may have access to the drugs if any are left over after the state's analysis is complete.
Before Lockett's execution, the state had refused to provide the source of the execution drugs, citing state law that allows such details to remain confidential.
"The attorney general will take this step to assure that the state continues its efforts to remain as transparent as legally and practically possible, in light of the law and very real challenges Oklahoma faces in assuring that all lawful sentences, including the death penalty, are carried out," Jones wrote.
Associated Press writer Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.
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