By Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – After the near-execution of Richard Glossip on September 30, 2015, Attorney General Scott Pruitt — with the agreement of Governor Mary Fallin — sought a 37-day stay of execution while a range of irregularities in the state’s death penalty process were investigated.
The stay, approved by the judiciary, soon evolved into an open-ended stay for two other men.
Pruitt said he would guide the multi-county grand jury’s investigation of several issues. It would be a huge surprise if the probe did not look at the cause or causes of “botched executions.” (One, two, or three? Four or more?)
An improper mix of drugs under the state’s lethal injection protocol is a likely subject of the grand jury report, although grand juries are always unpredictable. (No one outside the inner circle knows what was investigated until the report becomes available.)
In late October, days after testifying before the grand jury (proceedings are secret until official reports come out), Anita Trammell, warden of the state prison at McAlester, resigned from government service, saying she needed to spend more time with her family.
She began taking accrued leave after 33 years at the agency. Her last day will be March 1.
Corrections Department Director Robert Patton, at the time of Trammell’s departure said, “Her experience and wealth of knowledge will be truly missed. I wish her well on her future endeavors.”
On Dec. 4, a few weeks after testifying before the grand jury, Patton announced his resignation. He began taking accrued leave on December 25, to run through January 31.
Soon after leaving, Patton said he was taking a position at a private prison in Arizona, provoking negative commentary, including from some Oklahoma Republicans.
Last week, Steve Mullins, legal counsel to Gov. Mary Fallin, announced he was leaving the governor’s office due to stress. Mullins said his last day would be February 29, and that he had a voluntary buy out, popularly known as a VBO.
The next day, Michael McNutt, Gov. Fallin’s spokesman, said Mullins was not getting a VBO, but taking accrued leave to finish the month.
This week, opponents of the death penalty wondered aloud about the price in time, money and human capital for the state’s execution process.
Former state Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, said, “Although Oklahoma is viewed as a hard core death penalty state, our high visibility mistakes have caused a shift in public opinion.
“The national strategy presently revolves around the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment prohibitions, with a focus and goal of highlighting the unusualness of the death penalty.”
Johnson is chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP). In all, she observed, “Nineteen states have repealed it; it’s use is at an all time low. We only had one execution in Oklahoma in 2015. Public opinion is shifting rapidly nationwide.
“How unusual is it that in Oklahoma we can’t efficiently carry out the sentence, given the botched Clayton Lockett execution, use of the wrong drugs, and public officials scrambling to cover themselves about what went wrong.”
Rev. Adam Leathers, spokesperson for OK-CADP, commented, “We at the Oklahoma Coalition are concerned about the recent resignation of Steve Mullins, the general counsel for Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin.
“In light of the other resignations surrounding the issue of the death penalty, it has become apparent that capital punishment has become more trouble than it’s worth. No other activity of our state government that would cause this much trouble and require this many resources would ever be continued. It’s time to end this practice.”
Last week, after shepherding an investigation lasting a little more than four months, Pruitt told this reporter, “Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol has been upheld as constitutional. My office successfully defended the protocol last year before the U.S. Supreme Court. The constitutionality of the protocol isn’t at issue. Rather, it’s the administration of the protocol by the Department of Corrections that’s at question.
“Going forward, it is essential the state and the public have confidence that the Department of Corrections can administer the protocol in the manner represented to the court, the victim families, the convicted and their attorneys.”
There are presently five men awaiting execution. They are Stephen Fairchild, Jeremy Alan Williams, John Marion Grant, Benjamin Robert Cole, Sr., and Richard Eugene Glossip.
According to the Associated Press, “Fairchild, 56, was sentenced to die for the 1993 beating death of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son in Del City. Williams, 32, was given the death penalty for killing a bank teller during a robbery of Tulsa’s First Fidelity Bank in 2004.”
In late January, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals agreed to a request from Pruitt’s office, and decided not to set an execution date for the Fairchild and Williams.
The previous stays were in the cases of Cole, Grant, and Richard Glossip.
Graham Lee Brewer of The Oklahoman, who has covered the issue the past few years, succinctly reports, “Cole was convicted in 2004 of first-degree murder for the death of his 9-month-old daughter, Brianna Cole.”
As for John Marion Grant, who for a time was scheduled to die on Friday (Feb. 19), The Oklahoman has previously reported he “was serving a 35-year sentence for the robbery out of Oklahoma County at the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy. He was imprisoned in 1980, and had prior convictions in Oklahoma and Cleveland counties for burglary and robbery.
“On Nov. 13, 1998, Grant fatally stabbed 58-year-old Gay Carter with a sharpened screwdriver in the prison kitchen. Grant then stabbed himself in the chest with the weapon several times.”
Which brings us back to Glossip, convicted in an alleged murder-for-hire scheme that took place in 1997.
He has had four dates with death, ordered three final meals — and actually ate two of those.
On the day of his most recent scheduled execution, he spent several hours in a bizarre form of solitary confinement, unaware of how events were unfolding that would gain him at least 10 months more of life.
Of all the cases, Glossip’s is the most complicated and controversial, with serious allegations of insufficient evidence and poor defense counsel. The case rests on the testimony of one man – the confessed murderer, a man named Justin Sneed, who used a baseball bat to beat to death Barry Van Treese, owner of the hotel where Glossip worked.
Legal analysts, including this writer, believe Glossip has a strong case for actual innocence — strengthened over the past year through the Herculaen efforts of Colorado attorney Don Knight and his colleagues.
The multi-county grand jury will release its report either this week, or perhaps later: March 29-31, April 12-14, May 17-19, June 14-16 or July 12-14.
And then, the numbers will get even more complicated.