President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel took to podiums in the White House Rose Garden on Friday to threaten new, broader economic sanctions against Russia unless it backs off of its aggressive military actions in Ukraine. But one of the only questions they took from the media was on an entirely different subject: A French* reporter asked the president about the morality of the United States continuing to allow the death penalty, in light of a botched execution in Oklahoma that left a convicted killer gasping and moaning before he died.
At first blush, the reporter's question may have seemed like a wasted opportunity to press Obama and Merkel on their policy with Ukraine and Russia. But the question wasn't out of left field: European leaders have a long history of protesting executions in the United States because the drugs used in many lethal injections were once produced in Europe. In December 2011, The EU blocked the United States from importing the chemicals used in virtually every lethal injection at the time: sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. EU officials have repeatedly called for the "universal abolition" of the death penalty, which they deride as inhumane and barbaric.
Obama fielded the question on Friday, providing his first remarks on the controversy since Clayton Lockett's execution went awry. He had been sentenced to death for murder and a variety of other charges after he and two accomplices attacked and sexually assaulted two teenage women, one of whom Lockett shot twice and then buried alive.
The incident was "deeply troubling," Obama said, adding that he had asked the Attorney General Eric Holder to review how death-row inmates are killed. He did not elaborate, beyond saying he wants to know which steps were taken, both in Lockett's execution and "more broadly."
"I think we do have to, as a society, ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions around these issues," Obama said, while nevertheless expressing support for keeping the death penalty alive in certain serious and grotesque violent crimes, like mass shootings and the killing of children.
The death-penalty chemical issue has been a serious one in Europe for years. It erupted after the U.S drug company Hospira announced in 2011 that it was halting production of the sodium thiopental drug Pentothal in the face of broad global opposition. European companies began cutting the United States off from execution drugs afterward, heightening the crisis for U.S. prison officials.
The issue received national attention in the United States in January, after another convicted killer in Ohio, Dennis McGuire, 53, was put to death using a new two-drug cocktail of drugs that left him gasping and snorting for more than 25 minutes. Ohio used a combination of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a morphine derivative, to execute McGuire, who raped and stabbed a pregnant 22-year-old woman to death in 1989. Prison officials said he did not feel any pain, but that they would up the dosage in future executions.
On Tuesday, the issue came up again during the failed execution of Lockett, age 38. Prison officials used a different new - and secret - combination of drugs in his case. Prison officials have attributed the problems in Lockett's case to a collapsed vein in his groin, which effectively prevented the lethal drugs from entering his bloodstream smoothly. Lockett, officials said, also was zapped with a Taser electroshock device shortly before his execution. He ultimately died of a heart attack.
Correction, May 2, 2014: An earlier version of this article misstated the nationality of the reporter who questioned the United States' continued use of the death penalty. He is French. (Return to reading.)