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A political party known for promoting personal liberty and limited government will rally against capital punishment on Saturday, October 23 at 1 p.m. out on the North Side of the Oklahoma State Capitol.
So far, dozens plan to attend the event “Protest Capital Punishment: Abolish the Death Penalty”, according to a Facebook event page.
Natalie Bruno is the Libertarian Party’s gubernatorial candidate for the 2022 elections. She’s not the only candidate to voice opposition to the death penalty. Democratic candidate and former state Sen. Connie Johnson has long been one of the most vocal opponents of the practice. Bruno will face Johnson (D), Stitt (R), as well as other challengers, including State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who recently switched from Republican to Democrat to run for governor.
In an interview with The Black Wall Street Times, Bruno detailed why she believes the death penalty should be abolished.
“Our criminal justice system is so flawed and so broken that we should not be giving the Department of Corrections, or anybody really in our state, the opportunity to say whether somebody should die or not,” Bruno said.
Oklahoma ready to execute
Currently, seven death row detainees are scheduled for execution between October 2021 and March 2022. After plaintiffs were recently reinstated into a lawsuit challenging the state’s execution protocol, a court hearing will take place on Monday, October 25. It will determine whether to grant a motion to halt all executions until the lawsuit can be heard in a trial proceeding in February 2022.
Meanwhile, Attorney General John O’Connor has refused to halt the executions himself.
High-profile inmate Julius Jones, who has maintained his innocence for over 20 years in the 1999 murder of Edmond man Paul Howell, will participate in a final clemency hearing to decide his fate on Tuesday, October 26.
The hearing comes a month after the Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 to recommend commutation of his sentence from death to life with the possibility of parole. The board cited severe reasonable doubt in their decision. Yet, Governor Stitt has chosen to wait until after the clemency hearing on Tuesday before deciding whether to grant Jones life and freedom or a state-sanctioned lynching.
Opposition to death penalty grows
Organizers of the anti-death penalty protest have cited several reasons Oklahomans should abandon the “inhumane” practice. One glaring issue that remains is Oklahoma’s legacy of botched execution several years ago, which resulted in the state going nearly seven years without any executions. The state has used the wrong drugs and failed to properly administer them, resulting in one inmate writhing in agony for 45 minutes before eventually dying of a heart attack.
“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,” the panel’s report said.
Besides the fact that the Libertarian Party doesn’t believe the government should wield this kind of power, they also say it disproportionately impacts minorities and low-income people in the state. The facts show they’re right.
Stark disparities in who gets put to death
Black men are disproportionately represented among those scheduled for death in Oklahoma. Three out of the seven men scheduled for executions are Black. In other words, Black people make up less than 10 percent of the state population, but they make up 42 percent of the men scheduled to die on death row in the coming days, weeks and months.
The first man scheduled for death, a Black man named John Grant, suffered severe sexual and physical abuse in state-run juvenile facilities. The state wants to kill him on October 28. Julius Jones is the second man scheduled for death on November 18. Back in September, he became the first death row inmate in the state’s history to receive a recommendation for life with the possibility of parole.
For her part, Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Natalie Bruno said she wasn’t always against the death penalty. Registering as an Independent at 18, she eventually became a Democrat for several years before switching to Libertarian a few years ago. She said her thoughts on the death penalty eventually changed after getting more involved in criminal justice reform.
“We absolutely shouldn’t be doing it,” Bruno told The Black Wall Street Times. She said the death penalty is costly, unconstitutional and doesn’t deter crime.
“All it is is an emotional decision. It’s an act of revenge. That’s all it is. Outside of that there is no logical reason” to continue the practice, she said.
Mayoral candidate, friend of Julius Jones, to speak at anti-death penalty protest
Saturday’s event isn’t a partisan affair. While the Libertarian Party has organized it, community leaders from other organizations will also attend and speak.
Jimmy Lawson is a professor, activist and Democrat running for Oklahoma City Mayor. He’s also been best friends with death row detainee Julius Jones for decades. In an interview with The Black Wall Street Times, he said he wants to change peoples’ minds about the death penalty and advocate for marginalized communities in OKC.
“One of the main reasons I’ve always been against the death penalty is because it is a human-based system,” Lawson said. He wants it eliminated because of the ability of human error, which has resulted in 10 exonerations just in Oklahoma.
“My best friend, Julius Jones, I’ve been fighting for him for 22 years now. So, I have learned so much of how this system has so many flaws. It’s very inequitable. It’s corrupt at a high level. And there’s just a lot of room for error.”
“The system has been overpopulated” with people from the Black and Latino communities, Lawson said. He plans to speak on Saturday about the need to completely revamp the criminal justice system in OKC.
“I hope people walk away saying, ‘wow, I didn’t know. It is a flawed system. And because of that, we’ve gotta get rid of the death penalty.’” Lawson added.
Support for death penalty may be waning in Oklahoma
Meanwhile, the Eighth Amendment adds weight to the argument for abolishing the death penalty.
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,” the U.S. Constitution reads.
Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Natalie Bruno plans to latch on to the phrase “cruel and unusual”.
“I can’t think of a humane way to kill somebody,” she said. While support for the death penalty was confirmed when Oklahomans voted to secure it in the state constitution in 2016, Bruno said her experience analyzing data paints a mixed picture.
“When we look into haystack data, where we have actually asked people across the state of different political affiliations how they feel about the death penalty, we are pretty 50/50,” she said.
“Even with the Republican party, they’re split pretty 50/50 on whether they are for or against it.”
DA Prater’s actions cause some to lose trust in system
Moreover, cracks in the support for the death penalty appear to have widened after Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater’s refusal to accept the Pardon and Parole Board’s decisions. He’s sued the board and Governor Stitt, and has convened a grand jury to investigate the Board after they recommended commutation of Julius Jones’ death sentence in September.
“I’m completely against it,” Bruno said of DA Prater’s interference in the due process of administrative proceedings. Specifically, he’s twice asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to prevent Board members Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle from participating in Julius Jones’ clemency hearing. He argues their involvement in organizations that assist recently released prisoners presents a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, he’s said nothing about his own actions to intimidate and influence the vote of Board members.
“Gov. Stitt has appointed these people. And everyone has a right to be involved with whatever entities that they want to. I think the fact that they are involved in certain groups gives them a better understanding and viewpoint,” Bruno said, calling DA Prater’s actions “meddling.”
But Bruno worries that Governor Stitt may be more concerned with his voter base than doing the right thing. She said that when he ran for he pushed criminal justice reform so if he fails to grant clemency for jones “he’d be contradicting” his stances on criminal justice reform during his campaign for governor.
Still, Bruno, Lawson and the dozens slated to attend Saturday’s protest hope to change the hearts and minds of a state whose tough-on-crime approach has not resulted in lower crime rates.
“Now more than ever people realize how important personal liberty is,” Bruno added.