Executions across the nation and public support for them have trended down over the years, but state officials in Oklahoma are moving in the opposite direction.
Despite his campaign slogans, Governor Kevin Stitt has failed to make Oklahoma a top ten state in areas from education to business. Instead, he and his appointed Attorney General John O’Connor have helped to make Oklahoma top ten in dealing out death.
After executing two human beings in 2021, Oklahoma has surpassed Virginia as the state that’s carried out the second-most executions since 1976, according to a year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center.
Nationally, the federal government started 2021 with an execution spree of three people and the first woman in over six decades during Trump’s last few days in office. Yet, states across the country have continued a seven-year trend of executing less than 30 people combined per year. To put that in perspective, states executed 98 people in 1999 but only 11 people in 2021.
As some states abolish death penalty, Oklahoma doubles down
Virginia made national news when it became the 23rd state and the first in the South to completely abolish the death penalty. Additionally, three states—California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—have halted executions through a governor’s moratorium.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor broke a six-year freeze on executions in the state to continue the practice. Oklahoma had placed a hold on executions after a series of botched executions in 2014 and 2015, which resulted in the wrong drugs being administered and cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.
Clayton Lockett was given a previously untested mix of drugs to kill him in 2014. He groaned, writhed and attempted to speak even after he was supposed to be sedated, finally dying of a heart attack nearly 45 minutes after the drugs were injected. A year later, officials admitted they used the wrong drugs to kill Charles Warner. Both men were Black in a state that disproportionately executes Black men.
It wasn’t until the pending execution of Richard Glossip, when officials realized they were once again about to administer the wrong lethal injection drugs, that then-Governor Mary Fallin placed a hold on all executions in the state.
Oklahoma AG pursued executions despite upcoming trial on its constitutionality
For years, a lawsuit claiming Oklahoma’s execution protocols are unconstitutional has been pending in the courts. On February 28th, a trial will begin on the legality of the state’s death penalty. Yet, despite this upcoming court date, Oklahoma AG O’ Connor chose to proceed with several executions. The state executed John Grant on October 28, 2021, the first in nearly six years.
Journalists who witnessed the morbid event described it as “botched”, with Grant vomiting, convulsing and spewing profanities for several minutes before he finally died. Instead of acknowledging that it was botched, Department of Corrections officials claimed standard protocol was followed.
When asked whether Grant’s execution was humane, DOC Director Scott Crow released a statement saying, “inmate Grant’s regurgitation was not pleasant to watch but I do not believe it was inhumane.” Crow also denied that he convulsed two dozen times, saying he believes it was less than 10.
Meanwhile, the pressure from faith leaders, activists, students, politicians, and the international community did manage to result in a commuted sentence for former death row captive Julius Jones. For over two decades Jones has maintained his innocence in the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell amidst a trial plagued with racial bias.
Governor spares Julius Jones in rare win for death penalty opponents
Even as state prosecutors attempted to intimidate officials with the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, the Board voted twice to recommend a commuted sentence for Julius Jones, a decision previously unheard of in conservative Oklahoma.
Yet, in his last minute decision to spare Jones’ life hours before his planned execution on November 17, Governor Stitt approved life without parole, stipulating that Jones would never “be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life.”
Evidence from reports cited in the Death Penalty Information Center’s annual review has found that for every 8.3 executions there is at least one exoneration. Additionally, 186 people who were on death row have found to be innocent either before or after their death over the last several decades.
Yet, despite not believing Jones should be killed, and despite millions who believe he’s innocent, Governor Stitt has wielded political power to instead give Julius Jones a slow death in prison. Even so, Jones supporters have vowed to find a way to free Jones, perhaps by electing a new governor. For their parts, several candidates for the 2022 gubernatorial election have stated they would end the death penalty.
Even Joy Hofmeister, a Republican-turned Democrat who polls show would present the biggest Democratic challenge to Gov. Stitt, has said she would’ve followed the Pardon and Parole Board’s historic recommendation of life with the possibility of parole for Julius Jones.
Oklahoma competing for top death penalty state
Not satisfied with killing John Grant, and after failing to murder Julius Jones, AG O’Connor and Gov. Stitt proceeded with yet another notorious execution in the state. Bigler Stouffer was executed on Dec. 9. The 79 year old became the oldest death row detainee executed in Oklahoma state history.
According to reporters who witnessed his murder by the state, his last words were: “My request is that my Father forgive them. Thank you,” media witnesses reported.
Based on the Death Penalty Information Center’s report, Oklahoma appears to be competing for the distinction of most active death penalty state. For instance, Oklahoma County tied Los Angeles County for the most death sentences imposed in 2021 (two each), despite having a much smaller population. The state of Oklahoma also tied Alabama for the most death sentences imposed (four) in 2021.
With more death row detainees scheduled for execution in 2022, Oklahoma has become a center of the battle over abolishing the death penalty. Polls show Oklahomans are slightly less supportive of the practice than in previous year, though support still stands at more than 60%.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take to move the needle in Oklahoma,” Rev. Don Heath, chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told the Oklahoman in October.
Ultimately, little care has been taken to address the racial disparities that cause Black men to be more likely to receive the death penalty, especially if the victim of a crime is White. Yet, millions of people across the country have begun to realize the constitutional flaws inherent in giving the government power to kill its own people.
To see the full report from the Death Penalty Information Center, click here.
(**Article Correction: This article previously stated that Oklahoma County was tied with Los Angelos County for number of executions in 2021. They were tied for number of death sentences handed down. The state of California currently has a governor-imposed moratorium on executions.)