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Lethal Injection

Oklahoma Execution: Family of Inmate Eyes Lawsuit

Image:  The gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary is pictured in McAlester, Okla.

The gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. AP

The family of a death-row prisoner who died after a botched lethal-injection said they are considering a lawsuit against Oklahoma to force changes in the execution process.

"I'm not seeking financial gain from this," said Ladonna Hollins, the stepmother of convicted killer and rapist Clayton Lockett, who appeared to regain consciousness and struggle in pain in the middle of his execution Tuesday night.

"My main thing is I want the process changed," Hollins told NBC News as she waited for her son's body to be released so she could begin planning a funeral.

"I want them to admit they did wrong and after that, let’s change this," said Hollins, who has not retained a lawyer yet. "If we are going to put people to death, let's do it the right way."

Prison officials — who halted the execution, but not in time to save Lockett — said an intravenous line blew while the deadly drugs were being administered. The governor has ordered an investigation.

But the dead man's family suspects a last-minute switch to new execution drugs, which were obtained behind a veil of secrecy, is to blame. They are seeking an independent autopsy.

"If we are going to put people to death, let's do it the right way."

Relatives of an Ohio inmate who was executed in January with an untested combination of drugs filed a federal suit against the state, charging it violated the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

A lawyer for the family of Dennis McGuire — who took 25 minutes to die and appeared to gasp for air — said they are not interested in collecting damages, just getting the court to bar the chemicals from being used again.

The case is pending. Meanwhile, Ohio's prison agency just announced its internal review of the execution found it was "humane" and it's moving ahead with more lethal injection using the same drug combination.

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Post-execution lawsuits on behalf of the condemned are rare, experts said.

The family of Joseph Clark — whose 2006 execution took 86 minutes after the team struggled to find a usable vein — filed a $150,000 suit that was ultimately thrown out by a judge who ruled his suffering was not "intolerable."

In his decision, the judge said he had not been able to find another case where a prisoner's estate sued after the execution for an Eighth Amendment violation.

"It's largely an uncharted area because there is not a whole lot of prospect of winning," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment.

He said death-row inmates often have very distant relationships with family, who can't argue economic losses from their death.

"And I don't think any court will want to award too much to the family of a killer," he said.

But he said that Lockett's family might have the best shot at success — because the state was using a new protocol and had to stop the execution before it was complete.

"Oklahoma has broken new ground in a lot of bad ways," he said.

Image: Clayton Lockett
Clayton Lockett Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP file