By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – In March 2016, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission was convened to conduct a first of its kind, bipartisan, independent, comprehensive review of the state’s entire capital punishment system. On Tuesday, April 25, in its final report, the Commission announced it unanimously recommends extending the current moratorium on the death penalty.
“The Commission did not come to this decision lightly, said former Gov. Brad Henry, commission co –chair. “Due to the volume and seriousness of the flaws in Oklahoma’s capital punishment system, Commission members recommend that the moratorium on executions be extended until significant reforms are accomplished.”
Along with Gov. Henry, the all-volunteer eleven member commission was led by co-chairs retired Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Reta Strubhar, and former U.S. Magistrate Judge Andy Lester.
“It is undeniable that innocent people have been sentenced to death in Oklahoma,” Henry stated at a recent press conference.
Statewide impressions have been mixed with several death penalty foes reacting publicly to the report.
“Overall, we as the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) are pleased with the Death Penalty Review Commission’s conclusions regarding extending the moratorium on executions,” said Connie Johnson, OK-CADP chair. “We are grateful to the members who devoted many hours to their work. The conclusions mirror what many whose experiences and work in the abolition movement, but who were overlooked in the process, had hoped would be the minimal outcome.”
Don Heath, OK-CADP vice-chair said, “The Coalition agrees that an important reform would be to adequately fund public defenders to ensure that defendants receive effective representation at trial and on appeal. The inmates on death row pose no threat to public safety. If the death penalty cannot be adequately funded and fairly administered, it should not be administered at all.”
After the infamous botched execution of Oklahoma death row inmate Clayton Lockett in January 2015, followed by the execution of Charles Warner, which it was later learned to have used the wrong drug – potassium acetate, instead of potassium chloride.
During a tumultuous 2015, Glossip faced death three times, being dramatically stayed in each instance. His final wait for the death chamber in September 2015 was dramatically stopped by a second Department of Corrections drug mix up – the same “wrong drug” used to kill Charles Warner.
Following the Glossip lethal injection debacle, in October 2015, then Attorney General Scott Pruitt called for a moratorium on all Oklahoma executions and began a multi-county grand jury focused the state government’s mix-up over drugs sanctioned in execution protocols.
Glossip is now the subject of a new documentary by the Investigation Discovery channel and award winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger. Making its world premiere in Oklahoma City, “Killing Richard Glossip” uncovers new details about the murder for hire scheme. Many people, including Sister Helen Prejean, Sir Richard Branson, Susan Sarandon and Berlinger believe Glossip is not guilty of the crime of which Richard himself has maintained his innocence since his arrest in 1997.
The results of the grand jury report, characterized as “scathing,” were released in March 2016. Two top Department of Corrections employees – director Robert Patton and warden Anita Trammel – left office, along with Gov. Mary Fallin’s general council – Steve Mullins.
The report laid bare so many questionable issues, that the Constitution Project approached Gov. Henry about being one of the co-chairs of a research-based review of capital punishment in Oklahoma.
“Serious problems with multiple executions in recent years led Oklahoma to review aspects of its death penalty, but not in any comprehensive manner,” said Madhuri Grewal, Senior Counsel, The Constitution Project. “After speaking with a variety of Oklahoma stakeholders, it became clear that the time was right for a broader examination—especially given that Oklahoma carries out more executions per capita than any other state in the country. The Commission came together as an independent, bipartisan group to do that important work.
“It was an honor to staff the Commission and to have the opportunity to work with eleven dedicated and inspiring commissioners,” Grewal added. “Their concern in getting this right, for the good of Oklahoma, drove the process throughout. We at The Constitution Project are grateful to have been a part of this timely and important report.”
A longtime advocate against capital punishment, the Oklahoma Conference of Churches issued its latest version of a “Theological Statement in Opposition to the Death Penalty” last year. The statement was signed by all the bishops and other heads of the twenty Christian Communions which comprise the OCC.
“Each OCC member denomination has its own statement against the death penalty, and we stand united against capital punishment,” said the Rev. Pamela Holt, regional minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Oklahoma and convener of the OCC Council of Communion Leaders.
The Very Rev. Justin Lindstrom, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and president of the OCC Board of Directors, said “The churches which OCC represents believe that capital punishment is unnecessary, unfairly applied, and even un-Christian.”
The Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee, executive director of OCC, stated, “While we had hoped that the Commission would have abolished the death penalty altogether, extending the moratorium is certainly a step in the right direction. We applaud the members of the Commission for their careful work and their wise recommendations.”
Well-known anti-death penalty organization Amnesty International – USA’s Oklahoma death penalty abolition coordinator Rena Guay said, “I’m grateful to the commission for their thorough review of the death penalty process in Oklahoma. It’s a study that will prove very valuable to the death penalty abolition movement. The only realistic solution to the many issues outlined in the report is to abolish the death penalty in this state, and in the country. The sooner we take this step, the sooner we can begin to focus on solving Oklahoma’s many other serious problems that are fixable.”
In an interview with ACLU of Oklahoma legal director Brady Henderson, The City Sentinel editor Pat McGuigan asked, “Were you surprised at the content of the report?” Henderson replied, “Well, the commission has a collection of very high quality people and I knew that ahead of time. I guess I’d rather say I was pleasantly pleased.
Calling the report “candid” and “courageous” Henderson added, “I can’t think of any other report in Oklahoma history that looks at the system from beginning to end with as much clarity,” Henderson said.
“What this makes clear is that some of the greatest challenges for the system are not in the death chamber but are laced throughout the system,” Henderson observed. “It’s good to see a former governor, a former speaker, politicians, prosecutors and defense lawyers, advocates for victims and for those on death row, so many categories of Oklahomans seeing the same things that we see.”
Ryan Kiesel, ACLU Oklahoma executive director said, “We applaud this courageous report and urge policymakers to consider the recommendations with the speed and seriousness they command.
“The Commission’s findings and recommendations should serve as a blueprint for Oklahoma policy makers as they grapple with the failures of Oklahoma’s entire criminal justice system, not just those in capital cases. Oklahoma lawmakers would be wise to closely follow the thoughtful, evidence based recommendations by the Commission. Doing so might begin to restore dwindling confidence in all criminal prosecutions, but it is particularly urgent in cases in which the State is seeking the ultimate punishment of death.
“We especially appreciate the Commission’s recognition of a need to indefinitely extend the moratorium on all executions in the State of Oklahoma,” Kiesel added. “The only immediately apparent deviation we would make from the Commission’s findings is that the moratorium on executions in the State of Oklahoma should not be indefinite; it should be permanent.”
To read the report visit okdeathpenaltyreview.org.