Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Many recommendations in a new report from a bipartisan group that spent 18 months examining Oklahoma’s death penalty process would put in place new limits on common practices of prosecutors, bolster training and resources for lawyers defending persons accused of capital crimes, clarify jury instructions and bolster the role of the courts in assuring protections of accused persons.
In the words of the executive summary of the report, posted today at okdeathpenaltyreview.org, “the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission came together shortly after the state of Oklahoma imposed a moratorium on the execution of condemned inmates. In late 2015, Oklahoma executions were put on hold while a grand jury investigated disturbing problems involving recent executions, including departures from the execution protocols of the Department of Corrections. The report of the grand jury, released in May of 2016, was highly critical and exposed a number of deeply troubling failures in the final stages of Oklahoma’s death penalty.”
Authors of the 300-page report, released in early afternoon on Tuesdsay (April 25) gave the already-well-known major recommendation: “In light of the extensive information gathered from this year-long, in-depth study, the Commission members unanimously recommend that the current moratorium on the death penalty be extended.”
Among other matterss that could impact prosecutorial practices, the commission recommends, “Prosecutors and law enforcement should be provided regular training concerning their obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations to notify a non-citizen’s government when a non-citizen has been arrested and charges with a capital crime.” The group also advocated regular mandatory training on frequent causes of wrongful convictions.
Also recommended is that all district attorneys’ office and the state attorney general “should be required to allow open-file discovery at all stages of a capital case, including during the direct appeal, state post-conviction review, federal habeas corpus review, and any clemency proceedings.”
On the defense side of the equation, commissioners asked that the Oklahoma Bar Association “should promulgate advisory guidelines for the appointment and performance of defense counsel in capital cases.” OBA should also “facilitate or provide regular training for capital defense trial counsel and appellate counsel specific to the unique demands of capital case representation.”
Workers (lawyers, investigators, staff) in “the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System should receive compensation commensurate with that of attorneys, investigators, and support staff employed by district attorneys’ offices in their corresponding counties.” Adequate funding for all elements in the system was a recurring theme in the death penalty review.
The report called for judges to receive “regular training on the trial of capital cases.” The commission, in chapter 7 recommendations, said, “Oklahoma law should be amended to clearly provide that failure to raise extra-record claims within a direct capital appeal will not constitute waiver of those same claims on capital post-conviction review.”
As for discovery following orders of the state Court of Criminal Appeals, “counsel for a death-sentenced inmate should be required to show only good cause for the requested discovery.” And, a significant clarification in the appellate process is advocated:
“The Legislature should amend Oklahoma law so that capital direct appeals and state post-conviction proceedings run consecutively, rather than concurrently; and a defendant’s initial application for post-conviction relief should be riled with the [appeals court] within one year from the date on which the [appeals court] issues its decision and mandate on the defendant’s direct appeal in the case.”
The final report of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission amounts to a significant collection of important recommendations which would, if implemented, constitute transformative change in the state’s criminal justice system and the process of executions.