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With a parole board recommending Julius Jones’ commutation from death to life in prison with the possibility of parole, Oklahoma’s history of executions has come to light.
The state that was the first to allow more than one way to execute someone has a storied and complicated history, including last-minute exonerations and botched deaths.
Oklahoma legalized the current death penalty law in 1976, and since then has executed the largest number of prisoners per capita.
Oklahoma has several ways to kill prisoners
With a population of 4 million, Oklahoma is only the 28th most populated state. Just Texas and Virginia have executed more people by sheer numbers than Oklahoma.
In fact, Oklahoma was the first state to allow lethal injection as a form of execution.
Nitrogen hypoxia, electrocution, and firing squad are all acceptable means of taking a person’s life in the state. Oklahoma also has the distinction of being the first state to use phenobarbital in an execution, in 2010.
However, Oklahoma’s executions have rarely gone smoothly, and include at least one death that was so badly executed it caused trauma to the department of corrections staff observing and taking part in it.
Clayton Lockett was scheduled to die in 2014 by lethal injection.
However, the state was unable to find the paralytic drug necessary for ensuring the man did not feel pain during his death, and Mr. Lockett actually writhed on the gurney during the procedure.
According to a medic who was present at Mr. Lockett’s death, “one of the executioners said, ‘He’s trying to get up off the table’ and I thought, ‘What?’” The medic added, “The warden was very upset. Nobody wants a prisoner in an execution situation to suffer.”
Mr. Lockett eventually died, but the damage was done. The case led to a closer inspection of Oklahoma’s policies — as well as how other states execute inmates.
Oklahoma ready to resume executions after finding drugs for “humane death”
In 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States heard a case brought by three death-row inmates who contended that Oklahoma’s use of three drugs for executions was unconstitutional. Specifically, the state’s use of midazolam, the paralytic that allowed Mr. Lockett to wake during his execution, was the focus of the case. However, SCOTUS ruled in favor of using the drug, and executions continued.
Charles Warner was put to death in Oklahoma 2015. Although Mr. Warner died without incident, an autopsy later found he was injected with the wrong drug to stop his heart. As Mr. Warner’s death followed Mr. Lockett’s, Oklahoma had the distinction of two botched executions in a row.
Oklahoma’s support for flawed death penalty
Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly supported a 2016 ballot measure to enshrine the death penalty in the state constitution. Yet, 10 people have been exonerated from death row in Oklahoma’s history, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Moreover, governors have commuted the sentences of several death row inmates over the course of the state’s history. High profile death row inmate Julius Jones made history on Sept. 13, 2021 when he became the first death row detainee to receive a recommendation for commuting his sentence from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.
Supporters of Jones are hoping Governor Stitt will become the first governor to commute the sentence of a Black man on death row in Oklahoma’s modern history.
Executions may proceed despite pending court case
Meanwhile, Oklahoma has not executed a prisoner since then-Governor Mary Fallin’s 2015 decision to halt executions until Oklahoma could access the appropriate drugs for “humane” deaths.
This led to a scramble to find alternatives, under the guidance of then-Attorney General Mike Hunter. The drugs were later procured, and execution dates for several death row inmates have been scheduled.
However, there is still a pending court case over Oklahoma’s drug cocktail, which is unlikely to be heard until 2022, meaning that prisoners could be executed through means that may be found unconstitutional.
Defense attorneys for death row inmates consider it an outrageous abuse of power by public officials in Oklahoma.
According to Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender representing Julius Jones, “To allow executions to proceed when there is a chance the court could find a constitutionally unacceptable risk that a person could suffer because of the drug combination used, is just plain wrong.”