COMMENTARY – Oklahoma, executions and democratic choice – Ending the death penalty for our time, and for all time
Published: October 18th, 2016
OKLAHOMA CITY – A few days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the state of Oklahoma, requiring further judicial review in the case of a man convicted of killing a mother and her two children. The High Court said state judges erred in allowing the testimony of relatives during the sentencing process. (http://newsok.com/supreme-court-orders-new-review-of-death-sentence-in-oklahoma-triple-murder/article/5521996)
Many do not like that outcome, yet it is only the latest substantive development to delay executions for the 47 persons on death row at McAlester, including twelve who will be on the cusp of lethal injections should the state ever resume the now-controversial process.
Oklahoma is mired in controversy and costs, beset with caution and concern about something that, once upon a time, seemed certain.
Attorney General Scott Pruitt has encouraged the state Department of Corrections to craft protocols that could allow resumption of executions after a two-year–gap in state imposition of the Ultimate Sanction. He agrees with the Legislature, which endorsed use of nitrogen gas and sent to the people a state question that would, symbolically, shake a fist at the federal government, saying that Oklahoma will assert – yesterday, today and forever – a right to execute the worst among us. (http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/capitol_report/oklahoma-should-develop-execution-protocol-for-nitrogen-gas-ag-scott/article_8309f03e-d510-5eca-87f9-ee7300c136cc.html0
Not everyone agrees with that ambition, of course.
On October 10, members of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) held a press conference at the state Capitol in conjunction with the World Day Against the Death Penalty (http://www.www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/oklahoma-s-execution-foes-host-october-10-event-as-part-of-world-day-against-the-death-penalty).
Connie Johnson, a former state senator now serving as the group’s chair, said, “On the brink of a vote to determine whether to seal the death penalty in our constitution, our Attorney General has called for a development of a nitrogen gas protocol in anticipation of using it for the death penalty [when] the moratorium is lifted.”
She and her colleagues oppose that notion, as they oppose executions in all instances.
Slipshod implementation of death, sloppy process and shocking ineptitude led the state in at least one instance (perhaps two) to use the wrong mix of lethal drugs against a killer (Charles Warner). When the last attempt at the execution of Richard Glossip fell apart, a shocking grand jury investigation resulted with the panel concluding officials had behaved deplorably in more instance than once.
Now, as some officials press to renew executions, the cost of litigation continues to rise – as does the expense for procuring execution drugs.
For all the particulars outlined above, the steady shift of public opinion on executions in Oklahoma has unfolded due primarily to the case of Richard Glossip, whom many – including this writer – believe is not guilty of the crime for which he was sentenced to death.
Glossip has been on the verge of execution four times. The most infamous delay in his date with death came last year, when state official revealed they had in hand the wrong lethal drug for the process.
The truth is that Glossip should never have been in line for death even once, let alone four times. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/richard-glossip-torture_us_560d9e27e4b0af3706e01a0c)
Glossip’s conviction for the 1997 killing of Barry van Treese rests on the words of Justin Sneed, whose story “fingering” Glossip in the alleged murder-for-hire has over the last two decades gone through at least eight revisions. Sneed, in all versions of his story, admits he is the actual killer (http://www.www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/more-than-the-richard-glossip-case-for-the-constitution-for-social-justice-for-reasons-pragmatic-and).
The reason Glossip has garnered the most attention of all of the state’s death row inmates is simple: Actual innocence is a pretty strong argument against conviction for anything, let alone a capital crime.
In addition, abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean (http://city-sentinel.com/2015/09/sister-helen-says-it-is-now-up-to-the-people-of-oklahoma-to-reach-out-to-gov-fallin/), actress Susan Sarandon, entrepreneur Richard Branson, television host Dr. Phil and even Pope Francis, among others, have all spoken out on behalf of Glossip’s innocence.
Across America, there have been a total of 156 exonerations in death penalty cases in the United States (since 1973). (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-and-death-penalty)
No surprise that public opinion has shifted away from executions, in places as diverse as here, Kentucky, Louisiana and Nebraska.
Speaking of the Cornhusker State, the Legislature abolished the death penalty last year. Now, however, a referendum of all voters is scheduled for November 8,on whether to reverse that judgment.
In California, voters will choose in general election balloting between outright abolition, on the one hand, and speedier appeals of death sentences, on the other.
Which brings us to Oklahoma, which also has a death-penalty-related ballot measure on November 8 – State Question 776.
The measure would essentially enshrine executions in the state Constitution, explicitly approving use of nitrogen gas and other means (electrocution and firing squad) beyond lethal injections to assure executions continue in the Sooner State. (http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/capitol_report/oklahoma-should-develop-execution-protocol-for-nitrogen-gas-ag-scott/article_8309f03e-d510-5eca-87f9-ee7300c136cc.html)
If you are confused, you are not alone. But after confusion, sometimes there is clarity.
Death penalty opponents rarely find something that resonates for them within an editorial in the state’s largest newspaper. However, the closing words of an October 17 “house” editorial might fit the bill:
“Recent polling suggests a large majority of Oklahomans are willing to enshrine the death penalty in the state constitution even as a majority are also open to abolishment of the death penalty, so long as those who would typically be sentenced to death are instead given life sentences without the possibility of parole, forfeit all property and pay restitution to victims’ families.
“Those apparently contradictory findings are no doubt driven by Oklahomans’ awareness of the growing challenges of actually carrying out a death sentence. If justice can’t be served via the ultimate penalty, most Oklahomans still want it served in some form.”
As a matter of law and policy, a “No” vote on S.Q. 776 will not end the death penalty, nor will a “Yes” vote assure its future.
Given U.S. court review of federal matters (including capital punishment), Oklahomans can rest assured that judicial review of execution processes will continue. No state-level provisions can avoid that.
Nonetheless, the vote on 776 is at hand, and it affords an opportunity to send a message, even if the message is symbolic.
It is time for Oklahoma to pick its fights wisely, and use its limited resources with discretion and prudence.
The time for the death penalty has passed. Some hope the work of a bipartisan death penalty process review commission (chaired by former Governor Brad Henry) will help end executions in our state. Their report is due in February.
Meanwhile, on November 8, vote no on S.Q. 776.
As for the ultimate sanction itself, for truth, justice and the American way, let’s call the whole thing off. Stop, in the name of love and common sense, and in the name of God.
End the death penalty for our time, and for all time.