From investigation to execution, death penalty process is broken

Oklahoma’s execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. AP Photo, Sue Ogrocki, File.

by Rob Howard
Political Columnist

Oklahoma unveiled a detailed report reviewing the death penalty in late April. It approached capital punishment more from a procedural viewpoint than focusing, like I usually do, on the moral issues involved. Other states, particularly in The Gayly’sregion, would do well do get a copy of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission report and see how it might apply to their procedures.

The Oklahoma study, co-chaired by former Gov. Brad Henry and two others, presented 46 recommendations. The report said that, “In light of the extensive information gathered from this year-long, in-depth study, the Commission members unanimously recommend that the current moratorium on the death penalty be extended.”

Oklahoma has 48 people on death row. It has not conducted an execution since 2015 and currently has a moratorium. Arkansas, which executed four inmates in April, has 29. Kansas has 10, but has not executed anyone since 1965.

Missouri last executed an inmate in 2014; it has 26. Texas has 254 inmates on death row.  It executed seven in 2016, and four so far this year.

While the report included a section on the process of lethal injection, it focused much more time on the entire process of handling capital cases. The report covers the forensics used to study evidence; innocence protection, covering the use of eyewitnesses and jailhouse informants and other procedures to protect the rights of a suspect or defendant; and the role of both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

In addition it considers the role of the judiciary; eligibility of a defendant for the death penalty – it is unconstitutional to sentence minors or defendants who are intellectually disabled to death; the clemency process; and finally, the execution process itself.

Gov. Henry said that the commission members were, “all disturbed by the volume and seriousness of the flaws involved in Oklahoma’s capital punishment system.” While Henry said that he didn’t know if the state had ever executed an innocent person, current flaws in the system make it completely possible.

In fact, since 1973, 10 death row inmates have been exonerated in the state. In our region, there have been 27 exonerations, with Texas at 13, and Missouri at four. Nationwide, there have been 155 people released from death row with evidence of their innocence, suggesting similar flaws to Oklahoma’s in other state’s procedures.

Gov. Henry, no foe of the death penalty, said “While I do believe there are people who are so bad and so evil that they deserve the ultimate punishment, I think our process is broken, and until we fix it we shouldn't be executing people.”

Much news reporting focuses on the inhumanity of executions. And a lot on the drugs used, particularly the drug midazolam. It is supposed to prevent condemned prisoners from suffering while they die. Reports from across the nation include those being executed breathing heavily, writhing, clenching their teeth and straining to lift their heads off the pillow.

That was the case in the horribly botched 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, as well as in two of the four executions in Arkansas in April.

The Oklahoma report is damning in its review of the entire process of sentencing people to death. I have often written about my opposition to the death penalty, saying it is not humane, is racist, is tilted against the poor, is arbitrary, expensive and not a deterrent. Innocent people are convicted. If only one of these were true, it would be a good reason to stop executing people, but they are all true.

To those reasons, we can now add that the entire system – from investigation to trial to appeals to execution – is broken. All the members of the bipartisan Review Commission agreed.

We should stop condemning people to death. Period.

Oklahoma’s new Attorney General, Mike Hunter, disagrees with the conclusions and recommendations of the Review Commission, and says the state will move forward with executions.

Copyright 2017 The Gayly – June 19, 2017 @ 7:50 a.m.