Oklahoma and its affinity for the death penalty

·National Reporter & Producer
·12-min read
Thumbnail photos of James Coddington, Julius Jones and Richard Glossip.
From left, Oklahoma death row inmates James Coddington, who was executed last week, Julius Jones, whose sentence was commuted to life last November, and Richard Glossip, whose execution was temporarily stayed after it was discovered that Oklahoma had used an inappropriate cocktail of drugs for a previous execution. (Photos: Oklahoma Department of Corrections (3))

Oklahoma last week began what many are viewing as a state-sanctioned onslaught on its incarcerated population — executing its first death row inmate out of an unprecedented 25 inmates scheduled to be put to death in a total of 29 months.

The latest execution, of James Coddington, a white man who had been in jail since 1997 for killing a friend who refused to loan him $50 to buy cocaine, marked a dramatic step for state leadership. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt denied Coddington clemency after the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended leniency in early August. Many residents are now wondering whether the board’s recommendations matter in the state with the highest execution rate in the country.

“I have little hope that the Pardon and Parole Board will grant any more clemencies,” Rev. Don Heath, chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told Yahoo News on Friday. “The best hope for change is that a new governor will be elected in November, but that is a long shot.”

For some critics, two dozen executions in two years falls in line with Oklahoma’s legacy of executions dating back more than two centuries, and typifies the kind of law and order they want reflected in the American justice system. For others, Coddington’s execution, and those expected to be conducted, paint a clear picture of the predisposition of the state’s majority Republican leadership toward capital punishment, rather than any attempt at rehabilitation.

“While we still have a lot of people in elected positions in the state who are very zealous about having executions carried out, I don't think it necessarily reflects the sentiment of most of the citizens of the state of Oklahoma,” Andrea Digilio Miller, legal director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, an organization based at the Oklahoma City University School of Law dedicated to finding and resolving wrongful conviction cases in the state, told Yahoo News.

An execution bed with six straps and two wrist cuffs pulled taut.
The execution bed sits empty on Death Row in April 1997, in Huntsville, Texas. (Per-Anders Pettersson/Liaison)

Miller, who spent two decades as a public defender in Oklahoma, questions whether the majority of Oklahomans would support the death penalty if officials were more forthcoming about details involved in the process.

For years, there has been a lack of information about where the state obtains lethal drugs, concerns about how effective the drugs are once they have been administered, and scrutiny surrounding what are known as "factual innocence" claims from death row inmates. Coddington was one of Miller’s former clients, as are 5 of the 25 death row inmates scheduled to be executed.

“If the government had to be more transparent about how it carries out these executions, where it's getting its drugs to do that, what procedures have to go on in order to actually conduct an execution properly, … it would make a lot of people understand that there's a whole lot more to this than somebody just being strapped to a gurney and have a needle injected with drugs going through their system,” Miller said.

Coddington’s execution was the state’s fifth since Oklahoma resumed the death penalty in October last year. The state had paused executions for more than six years before then, after an execution scheduled in September 2015 was postponed when prison officials realized they did not have the appropriate lethal drug to carry out the killing of death row inmate Richard Glossip. It was later revealed that at least one execution prior to that had been carried out with the wrong drug cocktail.

As a result, Glossip, along with three other death row inmates, sued the state Department of Corrections to prevent their own executions and others in future with the controversial drug midazolam, a conscious sedative. The suit made it all the way to the Supreme Court, before the state executions were upheld by a divided 5-4 opinion.

An anti-death penalty activist with a sign saying: Thou shalt not kill.
An anti-death penalty activist holds vigil in front of the Supreme Court on June 29, 2012, in Washington, D.C.

Regardless of the final outcome, experts say, the suit and the costly mistakes that led to it were humiliating to the state’s operation.

“The Glossip fiasco is tremendously embarrassing for the state and raised all kinds of questions about the competency of the state to administer executions,” Tracy Hresko Pearl, a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, told Yahoo News.

Miller added that she feels “[Oklahomans] have far more misgivings about all of this, and obviously 25 executions in 29 months sounds a little crazy.” She noted the alarming number of botched executions both in the state and across the country in the last decade.

The state’s failure to obtain the appropriate lethal drugs for Glossip’s execution, and unanswered questions about the legitimacy of his and other death row cases have more recently given way to tales of inmates vomiting and convulsing during the procedure, attracting criticism of the state's ethical standards.

Twenty-three states in the U.S. have fully banned the death penalty, 24 still permit the practice and 3 others have temporary suspensions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But Oklahoma, by the numbers, continues to lead the charge.

Since 1915, Oklahoma has executed a total of 197 men and 3 women, according to the state’s own records. But according to the 2019 annual report by the National Registry of Exonerations, somewhere between 2% and 10% of all convicted individuals in U.S. prisons are in fact innocent — a statistic that many legal experts argue is far too high to legitimize capital punishment for anyone.

Entrance sign and guard tower at Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
The entrance to Oklahoma State Penitentiary. (Shepard Sherbell/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images)

Still, with so much uncertainty surrounding the execution process, including questions about a flurry of death row inmates with mental health disorders and about others who have maintained their innocence, death penalty opponents question why executions attract so much enthusiasm.

Maria T. Kolar, an assistant professor of law at Oklahoma City University School of Law, teaches courses on criminal law and capital punishment. She has challenged the motives behind the executions for years and says she has never received adequate answers.

“After going nearly seven years in Oklahoma without an execution, in an era when executions are at a new low nationwide for the modern era — for so many reasons — it seems reasonable to ask whether Oklahoma really wants to ‘lead the nation’ when it comes to executions,” Kolar told Yahoo News in an email. “Is this really what we need to do? Is this really what we want to do? Is this really who we are?”

Kolar was a member of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, which reviewed numerous aspects of the death penalty in Oklahoma and released a report on the topic in April 2017. The almost 300-page report, co-authored by former Democratic Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry and former U.S. Magistrate Judge Andy Lester, a Republican, called on state officials to halt executions in the state temporarily and proposed 46 recommendations for reforming the death penalty. The report addressed the need for better training and procedures ultimately aimed at preventing wrongful capital convictions.

Five years later, with executions resuming at a rapid rate, virtually all of the report's recommendations have been ignored. Henry and Lester challenged this in an open letter in the Oklahoman in July.

“We found that ‘the death penalty, even in Oklahoma, has not always been imposed and carried out fairly, consistently, and humanely, as required by the federal and state constitutions,’” they argued. “After five years, virtually none of our recommendations have been adopted. Yet the state is barreling ahead with an unprecedented number of executions despite the numerous flaws in the implementation of the death penalty. … All Oklahomans, regardless of one’s stance on capital punishment, should insist on an unwavering commitment to fairness and accuracy.”

Flowers and candles at a vigil for Oklahoma death row prisoner Julius Jones.
The scene of a vigil by a small group of anti-death penalty activists in Washington Square Park in New York City for Oklahoma death row prisoner Julius Jones on the day of his scheduled execution, Nov. 18, 2021. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

One such example where proponents believe fairness ultimately prevailed was in the case of former death row inmate Julius Jones. Jones, a Black man who had been on death row for nearly 20 years for a 1999 murder he maintained he did not commit, was granted a stay of execution hours before he was set to be executed last November, and his sentence was commuted to life in prison without possibility of parole. This move came only after the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board had twice recommended life with the possibility of parole for Jones and after millions of people across the country had signed a petition advocating against his execution.

Still, public support for the death penalty remains high in Oklahoma. The latest Sooner Survey, from October 2021, found that 64% of Oklahomans favor the death penalty, while 23% oppose it. But a previous survey conducted in August 2016 revealed that given more choices, a slight majority of Oklahomans would support replacing the death penalty with life sentences plus restitution.

A number of groups opposing the death penalty have formed since Oklahoma’s latest pause on executions ended late last year, and the number of people across the state calling for the death penalty to be abolished has grown. Some are even breaking with party politics to do so.

Experts say that for a bevy of reasons, ranging from fiscal to moral, a growing number of conservatives are now calling for an alternative to the death penalty in Oklahoma.

“We've really begun to see a conservative backlash to the death penalty, but for interesting reasons,” Pearl said. “If you're a fiscal conservative, you should hate the death penalty because executing people is so much more expensive than keeping them in jail for life without the possibility of parole.”

State capital cases, or death penalty proceedings, cost state taxpayers 3.2 times more than noncapital cases on average, according to the 2017 study of the Oklahoma death penalty. More revealing, an analysis of 15 death penalty cases nationwide, from that same study, determined that seeking the death penalty results in an average of approximately $700,000 more in costs than not seeking death.

Most surprising, a growing number of evangelical Christians, a group with devout conservative views, are breaking from the death penalty. During a webinar call last month, both evangelical and Catholic leadership called for opposition to the death penalty, citing God’s favor.

“Time is of the essence, and if we don’t engage — if Oklahomans don’t engage — it’s going to be a bloodbath,” Cece Jones-Davis, an Oklahoma-based Disciples of Christ minister, said on the call, according to Baptist News Global. “There will be so much blood on our hands, and God will not be pleased.”

Fourteen police officers surround a row of anti-death penalty activists holding a banner saying Stop Executions!, on the steps of the Supreme Court.
Police officers gather to remove activists staging an anti-death penalty protest in front of the Supreme Court Jan. 17, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

Sam Heath, manager of the Equal Justice USA Evangelical Network, added on the call, “If the governor does not accept the recommendation, then what is the point of the Pardon and Parole Board?”

When asked about the high number of slated executions, a member of the board leadership explained that they are simply doing their jobs.

“The death penalty is the law in Oklahoma, and the Parole and Pardon Board has a role in it — and it’s my job that role is carried out,” Tom Bates, executive director of the Oklahoma Parole and Pardon Board, told Yahoo News.

For Pearl, the conservative pushback to the death penalty is emblematic of a greater shift in play.

“We've seen evangelical Christians in recent years really begin to reexamine their moral support for the death penalty,” she said. “There's a growing view that people need to be given the maximum amount of opportunity to turn their hearts toward Jesus, and if the state is artificially shortening somebody's life, we may be impeding somebody's important spiritual journey.”

Still, much to the chagrin of death penalty opponents, Stitt, a staunch conservative and opponent of abortion, has not chosen to apply "pro-life" principles to the death penalty, in the state with the strictest abortion ban in the U.S.

“We in this country talk so much about trying to protect children while they’re children, but then, for the children who slipped in the cracks and the system doesn’t help, we’re more than willing to throw them away on the back end when they make a mistake,” Miller said. “The criminal justice system preys on the weak.”

Stitt did not immediately respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.

Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma listens as a CPAC speaker appears on a large screen behind him.
Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on July 10. (Dylan Hollingsworth/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Despite making up just 28% of the U.S. population, Black and Hispanic people make up 56% of the U.S. prison population.

“We don't see rich white people getting executed,” Pearl said. “It's disproportionately men who are poor and who are also people of color.

"I don't know how that's viewed as a liberal or a conservative problem,” she added. “That's an American problem.”

A deciding factor in who ends up on death row isn’t only the identity of a person accused of a crime, according to Miller, but as often as not, the identity of the victim.

“If you look back at studies about who gets the death penalty, it is often not necessarily the racial makeup of the defendant, but of the victim,” Miller said. “In the United States, you are more likely to get death for killing a white person than you are a Black person."

She adds that the figures suggest something about who, as a society, the justice system is concerned about protecting. “It turns out," she said, "that we're more concerned about protecting white folks than we are people of color.”

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (2)