Death penalty foes respond to voter approval of State Question 776

OKLAHOMA CITY – Members of The Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) and other anti-death penalty advocates registered disappointment that passage of State Question 776 now permanently enshrines the death penalty in the Oklahoma Constitution’s Bill of Rights section.
“State Question 776 represented the legislature’s veiled attempt to control the courts, and is a blatant violation of the balance of power and the system of checks and balances between the three branches of government,” said OK-CADP Chair Connie Johnson. “The Legislature has once again used an emotionally charged issue to manipulate policy and to deceive voters.”
While campaigning across the state as chair of the Say No to S.Q. 776/Think Twice Oklahoma campaign, Johnson predicted that taxpayers will foot what could potentially become a $300,000 bill for costly litigation and legal challenges that are certain to follow.
S.Q. 776 now locks the death penalty in a new Section 9a of Article II, the Bill of Rights Section of the State Constitution, affirming the state’s right to perform executions. It empowers the Legislature to designate any method of execution. It prohibits the reduction of a death sentence due to an invalid method of execution, and the death penalty from being ruled “cruel and unusual punishment” or unconstitutional, under the Oklahoma Constitution.
In final, unofficial election results, S.Q. had received 941,336 affirmative votes (66.37 percent), while 477,047 (33.63 percent) opposed the measure. 
Oklahoma has suffered a series of botched executions, issued four stays of execution for death row inmate Richard Glossip, and is reeling from a scathing multicounty grand jury report that led to three major resignations in the executive branch. A nationwide decrease in access to lethal injection drugs led to the legislature’s attempted two-pronged solution of statutorily adding nitrogen hypoxia as a legal method of execution in Oklahoma and purportedly protecting the death penalty by sending the issue to a vote of the people.
In March, a bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission began a review of every detail of Oklahoma’s capital punishment system, and expects to deliver a full report in early 2017. Former Gov. Brad Henry heads up the commission, along with former Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Rita Strubahr and attorney Andrew Lester.
“It is disappointing to see that the people of Oklahoma have not rejected the unnecessary measures contained in SQ776 to the Oklahoma Constitution,” said the Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches. “This measure pre-empts the work of the commission and would permit execution by virtually any means if lethal injection drugs are unavailable.”
Opposition to the state question is bipartisan. Marc Hyden, national representative for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty said, “This measure will not limit the death penalty’s brokenness one bit. Instead, it may exacerbate underlying problems.”
“The Legislature itself is now exercising unreasonable and arbitrary use of power and control by prohibiting the judicial branch from interpreting whether the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution. This judicial limitation is imposed regardless of how economically, racially or geographically discriminatory, and therefore arbitrary the death penalty is; despite how ineffective legal representation in a death penalty case might be; or how badly executions have been and could continue to be botched,” Johnson added.
“S.Q. 776’s sponsors want executions so badly that they would assault the separation of powers, a fundamental democratic principle. That is the real and scary danger behind the hidden agenda in S.Q. 776,” she said.
A recent, nonpartisan SoonerPoll survey shows that 52.5 percent of Oklahomans favor abolishing the death penalty, if replaced by life without parole. Only 27 percent of Oklahoma’s population remains in favor of capital punishment.
“Today, a majority of Oklahoma voters chose to enshrine the Death Penalty in our state Constitution,” said Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director, ACLU of Oklahoma. “This decision comes on the heels of our state’s numerous and increasingly brutal failures to apply the death penalty. This State Question is nothing more than an attempt by our government to shirk responsibility for their repeated incompetent attempts to rehabilitate an inherently broken system of state sponsored killings.
“This loss should not be considered a referendum on the death penalty. Opposition to capital punishment in Oklahoma is higher than ever. Despite today’s results, we must continue to push our elected officials to answer the pressing questions about our flawed execution system, most importantly whether or not in a modern society we should be engaging in this brutal and inhumane practice at all,” Kiesel added.
Of the 156 death penalty exonerations in the United States since 1973, Oklahoma has exonerated 10 people.
“We are eternally grateful for the efforts of all the volunteers who worked tirelessly to educate voters across this state about SQ 776. Because of them and others, the death penalty has come to the forefront in Oklahoma policy discussions,” Johnson added.
“Being in favor of the death penalty is one thing. Wanting to make it above the law is a completely different issue,” said Johnson. “That’s what S.Q. 776 was really about. It’s also why an eventual challenge will likely rule it unconstitutional, but now at significant unnecessary expense to Oklahoma taxpayers.
“The Oklahoma Coalition To Abolish The Death Penalty looks forward to continuing these and other policy discussions in order to educate Oklahomans about the brokenness of our criminal sentencing system. We will continue highlighting capital punishment’s economic, geographical and racial arbitrariness, its lack of crime deterrence value, and the gravity of the unacceptable possibility of wrongfully executing even one innocent person.”