Oklahoma Death Penalty Foes hear passionate story of conversion at annual awards dinner

EDMOND – At the 2015 awards dinner for the Oklahoma Coalition Against the Death Penalty (OK-CADP), former Oregon Superintendent of Prisons Frank Thompson delivered a passionate speech explaining his steady conversion – away from advocate of the ultimate penalty and toward a new life as a committed opponent.

Thompson detailed his journey as a pro-law enforcement man who evolved away from a primary concern for professionalism toward ultimate sympathy for abolition.

As he reflected on the impact on those who worked for him in the prison system, Thompson said his views evolved. He worried as he “came to grips with the fact that I was leading decent men and women into implementing a public policy that could not be shown to have a positive outcome.”

Thompson remembered he was, in trying to do his job, “more like a general carrying out an assignment.” He carefully studied the protocols (policies and procedures) for his state’s use of the death penalty, and grew increasingly uneasy about the process.

Although he had a state trooper friend who was murdered – a man whom he remembered with fondness during his remarks in the Sooner State – Thompson’s personal views shifted away from capital punishment. He insisted his new conclusions did not ignore crime victims, believing, “Every time you kill a person on death row, you kill a part of yourself.”

“I changed from a supporter of this to an advocate for its abolition,” he told his listeners. Still, he cautioned abolitionists “it is a mistake to vilify death penalty proponents. Rather, work to paint them a picture of what life would be like if there were resources available for other, nobler purposes.”

Ultimately, Thompson concluded there is no just and proper way to carry out that sanction. He encouraged members of the coalition to intensify their opposition, understanding the complexity of the issue and retaining full compassion for the families of victims.

Thompson pointed to what he called the “botched” execution of Clayton Lockett as representing “every nightmare” he had while considering the morality of executions while still working as a warden. Looking to the future, he said, “don’t let anyone convince you that Oklahoma can be insultated from another travesty” during a future execution.

He summed up his current views this way, “Public policies shold be able to withstand public scrutiny. The death penalty fails in every respect.”

Also at the dinner held this month on the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) campus, Peace House President Nathaniel Batchelder was named winner of OK-CADP’s Lifetime Abolitionist Award. Writer and activist Frank Silovsky remembered establishing a relationship with Batchelder in college days and the early years of the environmentalist movement. He hailed “Batch” for organizational acumen, saying the military veteran is a rare “true believer” who can fulfill “all-of-the-above” in practical steps for action.

When Batchelder spoke, the veteran progressive activist honored Phil Wahl’s memory, as first winner of the lifetime recognition from OK-CADP. Batchelder quipped he was overwhelmed that Wahl, when nearly 100 years old, could speak “on point, and briefly, which is good.” He remembered Wahl telling him, decades ago, “I’m not going to quit.” Batchelder made the same pledge.

Darla Shelden, reporter for The City Sentinel, won the Phil Wahl Award for work on death penalty issues.

Patti Ghezzi, a public defender and attorney – whose work has included preparation of appellate briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court — garnered the Opio Toure Award for her leadership. When introducing Ghezzi, fellow attorney Randy Bauman insisted, “There is simply no one like her.”

Thanking her fellow attorneys and members of the coalition, Ghezzi told the crowd she was honored to receive an award named for Toure, the former state legislator and civil rights legend.

Other speakers included former state Sen. Connie Johnson, an OK-CADP board member, who sent forth attendees with an admonition to remain passionate, spiritual and caring in the struggle. She called upon believers in the crowd to honor “things hoped for, not seen.” Johnson promised her best personal efforts to remain “grateful to God, always coinciding with His will.”

Prior to dinner, University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) and University of Oklahoma (OU) debate team members examined “Strategies for Ending the Death Penalty.”

Debaters were Tess Botkin from UCO and Leigha Maddy from OU. Dr. John R. Wood, assistant professor of political science moderated that discussion. The debate was sponsored by UCO, the UCO Department of Political Science and the UCO American Democracy Project. Thompson took questions from the audience following that event, and lingered after dinner to encourage attendees to sustain their activism.

OK-CADP board member Marilyn Knott articulated her organization’s “opposition to the use of experimental steps” such as restoration of the gas chamber or other means of execution. Along with Sen. Johnson, she anticipated possible passage of legislation advancing new execution methods, saying memberfs of OK-CADP could not support maintenance of death sentences.

Other prominent attendees at the group’s events included former Corrections Director Justin Jones, and state Rep. George Young, D-Oklahoma City.