OKLAHOMA CITY – As debate over the death penalty continues in America and here in Oklahoma, readers from both sides of the argument communicate frequently with news organizations, including The City Sentinel and with CapitolBeatOK.
The multi-county grand jury has been investigating the Sooner State’s controversial death penalty process for several months. The panel convenes again on Tuesday (May 17), when its report could finally be forthcoming.
Debate has focused not only on the issue of state-sanctioned executions, but also on the drugs used in lethal “cocktails,” the attendant processes, the impact on government employees who carry out death “protocols,” and other issues. In Oklahoma, the repeated rescheduling of Richard Glossip's date with death has inflamed discussion, with many analysts believing he is not guilty of a capital offense, if guilty at all.
A major development in the state's recent introspection over the death penalty came in late March, when a bipartisan group of citizens established a Death Penalty Review Commission. The group plans to meet throughout the current year, and present to citizens a compendium of recommendations touching all aspects of the execution process in the state.
A few weeks ago, we posed three questions to our readers:
What is your opinion of the death penalty?
Why is it important to you?
What drives your opinions, for or against, what is called “the Ultimate Sanction?”
We asked for short responses, and to “make the focus your opinion and your reasons for that opinion, not criticisms of the views of others.”
Some five dozen readers of The City Sentinel, a community newspaper with 24/7 online presence, and of CapitolBeatOK.com, an online news service focus primarily on state government, responded with passionate letters, posts or emails for and against the Ultimate Sanction.
A majority was opposed to executions in any or most cases; while a minority defended capital punishment.
Notably, while many readers were based (as we are) in and around Oklahoma, responses came from other states, including Oregon, Pennsylvania, Illinois, West Virginia, Texas and New Jersey. Several people wrote in from around the world, including England, Switzerland, and Ireland.
An overview of comments from each side of this vital contemporary debate follows.
Making the case against state executions
For opponents of the death penalty, much of the attention to the issue among our readers has flowed from our reporting and commentaries, especially those focused on Glossip, who currently remains on death row while many inside and outside the state believe he was wrongly convicted.
One such reader, George Barwood, wrote from Gloucester, England. He said, “I believe the death penalty is immoral and expensive, does not deter crime, encourages vengeful thinking, prevents closure for victims, causes suffering for the innocent relatives of the victim and the accused, and all too often the accused person is actually innocent, with more than 150 people exonerated from death row in modern times.”
Jennifer Flannery, writing from Naperville, Illinois, said her opinions “have been formed because of one man: Richard Glossip. Before I read about his case, I was loosely in favor of the death penalty. But the sheer volume of horrific mistakes, from the courtroom to the gurney that riddle Mr. Glossip's experience, prove to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the death penalty is an irretrievably and profoundly damaged system that needs to be ended. We are not a country that sells justice, but the simple fact of the matter is that Richard Glossip could not afford to pay for the kind of representation he deserved to assure that justice was served. As such, he was the victim of two tragically flawed court trials that not only condemned him to death, but barred the way for any meaningful appeal to take place.
“And then, when the legal system had reached a seeming end, Mr. Glossip was put in the hands of unqualified, non-medically trained DOC personnel who not only ordered the wrong execution drugs, but had done so before. And failed to admit their prior error and change the protocol to ensure another such mix-up didn't occur again. If it could happen to him, it can happen to anyone.”
Many of those opposed the executions believe the penalty “should be totally abolished,” as Frank Link of Boardman, Oregon said. “The Death Penalty is used far too easily and far too often as an out for avoidance to those who do not want to accept the possibility that they may be wrong in the conviction in the first place.”
Wrongful convictions pervade the process
Vickie Ferrerman of Rochester Mills in Pennsylvania says too many wrongful convictions” have taken place, leading to “prison or the death penalty to find out indeed a mistake has been made. It is my personal belief that man is not infallible therefore I do not believe men and women should ever be able to take another’s life regardless of role or title.” Donald Jordan of Oklahoma City would agree: “Surely in the past and again in the near or distant future, we will take the life of an innocent person. That is murder, and I do not wish to be complicit in it.”
Jennifer Owens of Choctaw, Oklahoma, wrote, “The death penalty cannot exist when people who might be innocent are put to death.” And Jess McAfee of Oklahoma City believes “our justice system is flawed and makes plenty of mistakes. And death is permanent. Can't appeal death after you’re dead.” Tony Clark, also from the city, says execution “is fundamentally wrong because we can't un-execute people and, since the justice system is FAR from 100% accurate, even on a good day, there should be no question that it should be discontinued.”
With similar arguments, Lisa Rudy Hoke contends “life without parole is sufficient justice.”
New Yorker Robert Kerley, from Schenectady, made a libertarian argument: “It is simply another way for the 'state,' as a complex, corporate, and immortal system, to intimidate and coerce individual humans. It's just another way for the state to kill people, and to lord over the people.”
Personal and Moral reasons for opposition
For some foes, opposition to the death penalty was deeply personal: “I don’t want to be responsible for the death of another human being” wrote Ann Parrish of Tulsa. Linda Joan wrote, “It seems so barbaric, hypocritical.” Julie Watt maintained, “They kill people who kill people to show people that killing people is wrong - that is highly hypocritical. It doesn't give victim’s families’ closure.”
Elizabeth Ritter-Blasser said, “All the people who are involved in an execution process are affected their whole lives, in a negative way.”
The case against executions is fundamentally moral for Desiree Leone: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Kristen King of Oklahoma City contends every resident on death row “represents a collective failure on our part to address the poverty and violence that helped to form that person in the first place. To justify the killing, we tell and retell the person's hideous crime, but we never tell and retell the story of what made the person be that way and all the system failures along the way. Our sins of omission are then conveniently washed away by putting that person to death.”
Lisa Barton Craig calls herself “pro-life from the womb to the tomb. If there is even the tiniest chance of being wrongly condemned then the death penalty should not be an option.”
King also pointed to the “disparate impact” argument, as did Laura K. Rhodes of Norman.
America should step away from executions, according to Bobby Jenkins: “Consider the list of the other countries that still executive their citizens and the list that do not. The USA should be on the list that does not.” Betty Martin of Dublin, Ireland, asserted the death penalty “is premeditated legal murder.” Kenneth Wilson of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, would prefer to “leave the Bible out of it. Even it confuses itself.”
Not all arguments against execution could be described as necessarily “kinder and gentler.”
Barry Marks of Corton, West Virginia has this vision: “What I would like to see is --- ONE prison system --- put the white collar crooks in with the really bad guys. Didn't they abolish 'separate but equal' in schools? Then why prisons?”
Bryan Taylor commented, “We have seen some monsters like Dennis Rader (BTK killer) who stalked people for months and was a Deacon in his church, and was a code enforcement officer with Wichita Kansas. He murdered several people. It was proven and he admitted, in great detail, what he did. The perfect punishment for him would have been, to put him in a 7x7 cell with the bible on CD being played 24-7 for the rest of his natural born days.”
As for the traditional argument that execution serves as a deterrent, David Jenkins of Oklahoma City had a different view: “The Roman Empire crucified mere thieves, and the Romans still had crime. A little closer to our present time, the punishment for committing any felony in Eighteenth Century England and its colonies was death. Despite the harsh and quick application of 'justice,' Great Britain was never lacking in executions to perform.”
Charlie Chapin of Corpus Christi, Texas, opposed the death penalty because of his experiences working on death row in a Florida state prison. “At that time I assisted an amazing woman who started a prison Jaycee chapter in order to give meaning to the lives of the prisoners. After that experience it was settled in my mind that taking the lives of others was wrong no matter what they had done. Only the Almighty should be able to call us from this life.”
More and more Americans point to the expense of the execution process as they make their case against its continuance.
Sean Cummings of Oklahoma City wrote, “It costs too much. And it’s fraught with problems.” Elizabeth Perry of Norman says, “It's not about the truth and justice, as I once thought, and more about winning.” Oklahoman Troy Smith believes, “It does nothing to deter violent crime, and brings us, as a people, down to the level of the killer. We are better than this.”
Danna Lynn’s arguments were efficient: “Nope. Waste of money. Not a deterrent. Innocent people have been killed and exonerated after death.”
Diverse views were also reflected in arguments favoring executions.
A unique argument came from Michael Pounds of Oklahoma City: “Lethal injection is expensive. Firing squad is cheap fast and easy. Better than that though is what the Russians have in times of war. Put prisoners sentenced to death on the front lines with the most basic of rifles, put them where the fighting is fiercest. For every two have a commissar sort of officer that oversees them. If they turn around he shoots them, if they make a serious contribution to the war effort by saving important assets or removing certain targets efficiently and they survive it, they have earned their freedom.”
Susan Weidey Webb seemed ambivalent concerning executions, saying, “the question should begin” before the death penalty: “Why or why not attentive 2 parent homes, where parents have time with children to love and nurture. Why not sensitive, effective affordable mental health treatment, why not drug intervention and treatment facilities that help those who want the help? Why or why not have communities that can put down, work, technology and other compulsions that demand so much time, that we can't sit quietly and listen to each other.”
Adelina Clonts of Tulsa also reflected ambivalence on executions, writing to us: “have always been taught to love, even the sinners, however, we still have to be held accountable for our actions. I do believe in conversion but there are specific crimes where people deliberately murder, rape, assault and mutilate bodies, even those of innocent children/babies. There should be NO tolerance when it comes to the physical or sexual abuse on any child. We have too many open killings everyday and people need to know they will be held accountable.”
Similarly, Mark McKinzie felt that death should be possible for “child molesters, rapists, cop killers an murderers [who] cannot be rehabilitated.”
Julie Riggs of Oklahoma City shared “something I learned from Professor Dan Lawrence, a former prison warden. If the state will not execute criminals for the worst, most heinous crimes, then it risks making criminals out of the citizens. The citizenry will demand execution for these most heinous criminals... and execute them themselves if the state refuses. … The death penalty should only be for the most heinous crimes where guilt is absolute. But if you deny the citizenry the death penalty, they will claim it for themselves, either through vigilantism or prison justice. I'm not saying that's right. I'm just saying that's the way it is.”
'The penalty is right'
Alex Basala believes, “The penalty is right. Our justice is weak. That is why there are so many people in jail. We need the death penalty to set an example. … People who do terrible things should get it. We take time to make sure they are guilty. Why do you think China doesn't have too many people in jail?” Rob Estes of Mustang says, “punishment is needed for horrible crimes.”
Nancy Mendz of Seminole, Oklahoma, says of murderers: “Perhaps doing to them exactly they did would be a deterrent?” A few other writers made their case for capital punishment describing hopes to bring back firing squads or hangings or electric chairs.
Lu Henry said decent homeless people get “kicked around,” but child molesters and murderers have “a roof over their heads.” Henry wants to “put the killers out of our misery, right away. … [T]he lethal injection is too easy for some. They deserve the pain and suffering they inflicted on the people they killed.”
The punishment should fit the crime
James England of Oklahoma City believes “not punishing the wicked means not being just.” He argues executions are “just punishment for the worst crimes. Murderers forfeit their natural right to life by heinously, maliciously taking others' lives.”
Matt Robertson, also of the city, reflected, “The death penalty should be mandatory in the case of premeditated murder. Capital punishment is indeed a deterrent when it is carried out quickly and not pushed back for 10-15 years. Innocent people bring convicted, although rare, is a separate problem, but definitely needs to be addressed.”
Paul Pettit would agree with England, saying “Society has both a right and an obligation to protect itself from predators.”
Along the same lines argued Dana Robinson, saying execution is a “fair and reasonable punishment” while Roger Stephenson of Comanche, Oklahoma contended, “The death penalty is to protect the general population.”
Deterrence and Appropriateness
Don Rubottom, a former Oklahoma legislator who now lives in Florida, outlined his reasoning: “If the ultimate punishment is not available, then the imposition of the lesser maximum creates a circumstance where no punishment is available for subsequent maximum crimes. Why not kill a guard or other inmate if you are already under life without parole? It deters those executed from any further violence.”
He continued, “It demonstrates that the value of innocent life is incalculable. Willful taking of human life in violation of law must be dealt with in proportion to the evil it represents.” Finally, “God exists, He taught that the ultimate penalty is appropriate in some cases; He can save the soul of a murderer who prepares to meet his Maker and the Maker of his victim. (If God does not exist then you make yourself to be god when deciding such matters and anything you decide is arbitrary, without external justification.)”
We are grateful to all who chose to share their views, and encourage continued discussion of the issue.