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Death penalty: Legislator wants Parole Board to ignore innocence claims

by Deon Osborne, Associate Editor
Legislator wants Parole Board to ignore innocence claims in death penalty
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Back in 2017, Furonda Brasfield was the leader of an anti-death penalty organization in Arkansas when she first realized the role race played in state-sanctioned murder. 

It was a time when the state was seeking to execute eight prisoners in just 11 days. Furonda watched helplessly as her attempts to prevent the executions of four men failed. Three Black men and one White man were executed in a state where Blacks make up only 15% of the population.

“My background has been tumultuous and traumatic,” Brasfield said in an interview with The Black Wall Street Times.

What she described as a “killing spree” in 2017 began after an Easter Sunday. It was then that she said she realized the death penalty is a racist practice “at every level.”

Since then, Furonda Brasfield has become Director of Leadership Development for the 8th Amendment Project, a leading advocacy group against the death penalty. 

Through the organization, Brasfield leads a project titled “From Noose to Needle,” which educates states about the connection between race-based lynchings and modern-day executions. The goal is to push states to abolish capital punishment by looking at it from a lens of racial inequity.

“These systems that we have are rooted in slavery, rooted in oppression, rooted in racism. In order to have substantive change, we’ve got to face that reality,” Brasfield said.

Oklahoma bill would restrict Parole Board in death penalty cases

Meanwhile, Oklahoma Republican state Rep. John Pfeiffer, the state’s deputy floor leader, filed a bill that would restrict the Pardon and Parole Board from being able to recommend commutation for any death row prisoners. HB 3903 states, “The Pardon and Parole Board shall not recommend to the Governor parole for any person who was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole or death.”

Despite a nationwide decline in executions, some states vigorously continue the morbid practice. For instance, Oklahoma holds the notorious distinction of second-most active death penalty state in the nation, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. 

In 2021, the state executed the mentally ill, moved forward with the oldest executed prisoner in state history, and attempted to execute high profile prisoner Julius Jones, despite millions around the nation supporting his innocence.

Governor Stitt traumatized Oklahomans and people from around the world when he waited until hours before Jones’ scheduled execution to commute his sentence to life without parole. The decision came after the Parole Board voted twice to recommend life with the possibility of parole for Jones. He was convicted of killing White businessman Paul Howell in 1999. Jones has maintained his innocence as his supporters vow to find a way to free him.

Oklahomans have been exonerated from death row before

Many see Rep Pfeiffer’s bill limiting the Parole Board as retaliation after the state chose not to execute Julius Jones. Even conservative, Republican state lawmaker Kevin McDugle has voiced opposition to the bill. He is pushing for reforms in the death penalty, said the bill “takes power away” from the Parole Board.

“I’m a clear case of an innocent person falling through the cracks of our judicial system,” Julius Jones said in a phone call to KFOR’s Ashley Moss on Friday. “I thought the state was about preserving life, all life.”  

Rep. Pfeiffer didn’t respond to a request for comment. Yet, in a statement to KFOR, he said: 

“Because it is a politically-appointed executive board and not a court of law, the Pardon and Parole Board does not provide the high jurisprudence standards of due process and equal protection that the accused and victims each deserve. Despite recent inaccurate insinuations otherwise, the Pardon and Parole Board was never designed to decide innocence, guilt or whether cases were properly handled.”

Governor Stitt has claimed he will sign any “pro-life” bill that restricts a woman’s right to an abortion. Ironically, he has also signed off on the executions of four human beings in less than a year.

Ten Oklahoma death row prisoners have been exonerated since 1973, according to DPIC. Five of them were White, and five were Black, despite Black Oklahomans making up only 7% of the state’s population. 

Data clearly shows Oklahoma prosecutors have gotten it wrong in the past. And at least one study has shown that prosecutors in the state are more likely to call for the death penalty if the victim of a crime is White, according to a 2017 report from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

From noose to needle: how mob lynchings morphed into state-sanctioned murder

The facts show evidence of racial bias and prosecutorial errors in Oklahoma’s death penalty system. So, it’s unclear why state Rep. Pfeiffer would restrict the Pardon and Parole Board from hearing any claims of innocence.

When asked for a possible motivation for Rep. Pfeiffer’s bill, Furonda Brasfield responded, “The streets need a body, and any body will do.”

One thing, however, is clear. The states with the highest rates of capital punishment also had the highest number of racist mob lynchings. 

“Officials would take men from lynch mobs, try them by an all White jury in a day, and sentence them to death,” Brasfield said, explaining how the death penalty became a tool to implement vigilante justice through legal means.

Oklahoma’s government formed after slavery was already abolished (The Five Civilized Tribes enslaved Black people until 1866). Yet, it had the highest rate of mob lynchings outside the South. Today, that brutal history is reflected in its status as a top ten death penalty state.

“Are we a society of killers? Somehow, it’s OK to kill someone, but we don’t rape rapists. If somebody steals something we don’t go in their house and steal all their stuff. The death penalty is rooted in retribution. As a society, we’ve got to ask ourselves if thats what we wanna be,” Brasfield said.

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