Oklahoma voters could soon decide whether to end death penalty

by Deon Osborne, Associate Editor
death penalty mauree turner
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After a year of botched executions and outrage over the state’s role in dealing out death, a state representative filed a bill to bring the fate of the state’s death penalty to a vote of the people.

State Rep. Mauree Turner (D-OKC) has filed legislation for the upcoming 2022 session, HJR1050, that would create a state question asking voters to decide whether the death penalty should exist in Oklahoma.  

“What I am hearing from my district, and people around the state, is an urgent need to end state-enacted murder in the name of a criminal legal system that seeks to kill people with impunity,” Turner said in a Wednesday press release.

Polls in recent years show a majority of Oklahomans support the death penalty, which was voted into the state’s constitution in 2016.

Yet, following the state-sanctioned murders of several death row detainees and the last-minute commutation for high-profile detainee Julius Jones in 2021, people from all political backgrounds have begun to question the morbid practice.

In an interview with The Black Wall Street Times, Rep. Turner said they hope to start a wide-ranging conversation about Oklahoma’s criminal justice system and called the death penalty little more than retribution.

“I think what the people of Oklahoma are truly wanting is a more just, a new Oklahoma standard,” they said. “When folks across the aisle, no matter what the party is, say ‘this is something we need to take another look at’, I think it really speaks volumes that this is not a partisan issue.”

oklahoma death penalty libertarian party

Robert H. Alexander, Jr., center, a member of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, speaks during a news conference in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, April 25, 2017. The commission released a report that says the state should extend its moratorium on capital punishment. At left is Andy Lester and at right is former Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki) Sue Ogrocki—AP

Police chiefs: death penalty doesn’t deter violent crimes

Highlighting the fact that Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, Rep. Turner called for re-imagining the state’s method of distributing justice by incorporating more of a community approach.

“In Oklahoma, so many families, so many individuals are touched by the justice system in so many ways.” Turned said it shouldn’t be taken lightly and that actions around the death penalty shouldn’t be decided by a few individuals.

While they admit it won’t be easy to pass the bill and get the state question on the death penalty in front of voters, they are willing to work with anyone who’s voiced concerns about it in order to give the people the final say.

“We trusted our constituents to elect us, right? And I’m gonna trust them to use their voices every day.”

While arguments in favor of the death penalty point to its purpose as deterring violent crime, opponents argue its nothing more than retribution by a few state actors in a racist process that disproportionately targets Black people with cruel and unusual results.

Importantly, in their release, Rep. Mauree Turner cites a report from the Death Penalty Information Center. In a poll of police chiefs, the Center found the chiefs cited the death penalty as least effective at preventing crime.

death penalty virginia

Virginia Gov. Northam sigs bill abolishing the death penalty in the state in 2021. / AP

Oklahoma one of most active death penalty states

Beyond that, studies have shown the decision by prosecutors to seek the death penalty is often decided along racial lines. For instance, ​​in Oklahoma, state prosecutors are more likely to call for the death penalty in a crime where the victim is White and less likely to call for it in when the victim is an ethnic minority, according to a 2017 report from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 

Rep Turner’s release also cites statistics from the FBI that shows states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without capital punishment, poking a major hole in the argument that it deters crime. Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of utilizing the death penalty with the 11th highest murder rate, according to the most recent year of numbers from the Centers for Disease Control.

After nearly six years with no executions due to previous botched attempts, Oklahoma became the second-most active death penalty state in 2021, according to a year-end report from the DPIC. 

As if fighting to be top ten in death dealing, Oklahoma executed John Grant on October 27, but not before he suffered over a dozen convulsions and vomited on the gurney. The state went on to carry out the execution of Bigler Stouffer on December 9. At 79, Stouffer became the oldest person executed in state history.

oklahoma botched execution department of corrections

Left: Associated Press journalist Sean Murphy details convulsions and vomiting that death row detainee John Grant underwent during his botched execution on Thursday, October 28, 2021. (Kassie McClung, ReadFrontier) Right: Oklahoma Dept. of Corrections Director Scott Crow said the execution occurred “without complications”. (OK.gov)

Julius Jones commutation brings attention to death penalty’s flaws

Meanwhile, thanks to the tireless efforts of religious leaders, community organizers, and even Republican leaders across the state and nation, Gov. Stitt granted a partial commutation of Julius Jones’ scheduled execution four hours before he was set to die on November 17. Citing evidence that questions his guilt over the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended a commuted sentence for Julius Jones, a first in state history.

Ultimately, international calls for Julius Jones’ release have put a spotlight on Oklahoma’s use of the death penalty. The newfound attention potentially opens up room for debate over its future existence. 

“Those organizers were able to galvanize people across the world to speak up, not only on Julius Jones’ case, but on capital punishment as a whole, about how we often get it wrong,” Rep. Turner told The Black Wall Street Times.

Julius Jones

Julius Jones supporters break down in tears after Gov. Stitt grants partial clemency hours before Jones’ scheduled execution on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2021. (Chris Creese / The Black Wall Street Times)

Although Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates, Rep. Turner doesn’t believe the state holds the worst people.

“We don’t have worse people here. We have an archaic system built on revenge rather than rehabilitation. And my job as an elected official, and my job as a contributing member of society is to make sure that we are creating a space where folks feel safe and whole and welcome.”

Rep. Turner said the way to do that is to provide resources, not by building bigger and better prisons or enacting capital punishment.

“It’s by making sure we are helping people and uplifting people before we even get to that point.”

Supporters for Oklahoma death row inmate Julius Jones call for his release during a historic commutation hearing on Monday, Sept 13. (The Black Wall Street Times photo / Mike Creef)

Controversy surrounds Oklahoma’s death penalty

Adding to the morbid spectacle surrounding the practice, reports have surfaced indicating an Oklahoma doctor gets paid $15,000 of taxpayer funds each time an execution is carried out. Moreover, Gov. Stitt recently asked Parole Board member Adam Luck to resign, replacing him with Edward Konieczny, a man with a background in both law enforcement and as a religious leader. Luck, a director of a community organization, had continuously questioned the state’s handling of the death penalty.

Konieczny, Luck’s replacement, signed onto a letter from the Oklahoma Conference of Churches in 2021 denouncing the death penalty, but he’s recently distanced himself from the letter. The walk-back indicates he may be more willing to recommend executions and less willing to go against the governor and attorney general.

Meanwhile, the courts haven’t been kind to death row detainees. The conservative United States Supreme Court has shot down several attempts by defense attorneys to halt executions. In fact, two men were executed in 2021 and several are scheduled for 2022 even though there’s a pending court hearing on February 28 to determine the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty.

Not content with allowing the macabre practice to continue, Rep. Turner wants to give Oklahoma residents the chance to make their beliefs known with a statewide vote to either keep or get rid of the death penalty.

clemency

Julius Jones supporters sing and dance after the governor grants partial clemency on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2021. (Chris Creese / The Black Wall Street Times)

Seeking common ground to end capital punishment

Moving forward, Rep. Turner hopes to see their bill make it onto a committee and eventually pass through the legislature so that Oklahoma voters can make their voices heard.

“I think anybody who spoken up and spoken out about the issues with our death penalty, who has expressed that they care about criminal justice reimaginement and rebuilding, that they care about community care, I want to call on those folks,” Rep. Turner told The Black Wall Street Times.

Notably, the ACLU of Oklahoma indicated their support for the bill.

“The ACLU of Oklahoma applauds Rep. Turner’s proposed legislation and their efforts to give the people of Oklahoma, not politicians, the opportunity to decide how they seek justice,” said Cindy Nguyen, Policy Director for the ACLU of Oklahoma. 

“Even with the upcoming federal court case in February challenging our State’s three drug protocol, Oklahoma has three additional alternative methods that could continue the cruel, inhumane, and reckless execution spree the world has witnessed over the last several months. The State has done absolutely nothing to inspire confidence that they are able to exercise the ultimate power of any government without the catastrophic failures of the recent past. It is time Oklahoma end the death penalty once and for all,” Nguyen added.

death row exoneree julius jones

From left to right: Death row exoneree Herman Lindsey, sister of death row exoneree Greg Wilhoit. Exonerees spoke at the Oklahoma state Capitol on Wednesday, Sept. 1, to share their stories and voice support for Oklahoma death row inmate Julius Jones, who is scheduled for execution on Nov. 18, 2021. | Photo courtesy of Tyler Stark

More executions planned for 2022

Expressing gratitude to their constituents, the ACLU, and others who they’ve worked with on the issue, Rep. Turner acknowledged the “heavy work” that goes into trying to make positive, transformational changes in the criminal justice system of a state like Oklahoma.

“When you wake up each day and you decide to do this work with me, it’s one of the most humbling experiences I think I could ever really get,” Rep. Turner said.

Moving forward, Oklahoma scheduled three more executions for 2022. Donald Grant is scheduled for execution on Jan. 27, Gilbert Postelle on Feb. 17, and James Coddington on March 10.

The Oklahoma Conference of Churches is hosting a virtual discussion condemning the death penalty on Thursday, Jan. 20 at 7 p.m.

To stay connected to Rep. Mauree Turner’s proposed legislation, contact them at (405) 557-7396 or mauree.turner@okhouse.gov.

4 comments

Mitzi January 24, 2022 - 1:23 pm

The death penalty needs to be done with. It is not our place to decide on someone’s life. We punish our murderers by killing them too. That should show the people thou shalt not kill. They will suffer more doing life without parole. By killing them. We are setting them free.

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