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Activists, newspapers sue over blocked access to Oklahoma executions

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Activists groups and two newspapers sued on Monday to try and prevent Oklahoma prison officials from blocking what can be seen by witnesses to executions, in a lawsuit prompted by the state screening off its death chamber in a botched execution in April.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Oklahoma, Guardian U.S. and Oklahoma Observer are demanding that journalists and witnesses be permitted to view the execution from the time a prisoner enters the chamber until its conclusion, without interruption.

"The death penalty represents the most powerful exercise of government authority – the intentional ending of a human life. The need for public oversight is as critical at the execution stage of the justice process as it is in earlier stages, including voir dire and trial," said the lawsuit filed in a U.S. District Court in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma's Department of Corrections had no comment on the lawsuit and does not comment on pending litigation, spokesman Jerry Massie said.

The lawsuit contends the state violated constitutional protections of a free press when prison officials drew a curtain on its death chamber to block the view of witnesses about 15 minutes into the execution of Clayton Lockett, which went awry.

Before that, convicted murderer and rapist Lockett, 38, was seen by witnesses lifting his head, mumbling and twisting on the gurney. Lockett died of an apparent heart attack about 40 minutes after the procedure started.

Prison officials said they halted the procedure after having problems with the intravenous drip, which leaked the lethal injection chemicals in the death chamber. They also tried to revive Lockett, they said.

Members of the press could hear sounds coming from the death chamber indicating pain and suffering, but they were unable to verify their exact source because they could not see what was happening. There were no independent witnesses to Lockett’s death, and the precise cause of death has yet to be determined.

"The government shouldn't be allowed to effectively blindfold us when things go wrong. The public has a right to the whole story, not a version edited by government officials," said reporter Katie Fretland, a media witness at the execution for the Oklahoma Observer, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The case is: Oklahoma Observer et al v Patton et al in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, No. 14-905

(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Grant McCool)

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