In the Bible Belt, Christmas Isn’t Coming to Death Row

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When it comes to the death penalty, guilt or innocence shouldn’t really matter to Christians.  

NASHVILLE — Until August, Tennessee had not put a prisoner to death in nearly a decade. Last Thursday, it performed its third execution in four months.
This was not a surprising turn of events. In each case, recourse to the courts had been exhausted. In each case Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, declined to intervene, though there were many r…

Oklahoma goes second straight year without an execution; no new protocol in sight

Oklahoma's death chamber
Oklahoma did not put anyone to death over the past two years amid continued work on the Department of Corrections’ lethal injection protocol. This is the first time since 1994 that the state has gone two or more consecutive years without carrying out an execution.

The Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization that doesn’t take an official position on executions, released its annual report last week on the status of capital punishment in the United States. It found that death sentences and executions are at historic or near-historic lows due in part to diminishing public support and litigation over lethal injection drugs, which have become increasingly difficult to obtain.

Twenty-three people nationwide were executed in 2017, a slight increase from 2016 but only a fraction of the nearly 100 executions conducted in 1999. The center projects that 39 people across 14 states and the federal government will have received new death sentences this year.

Notably, the report states, Harris County, Texas, did not contribute to this year’s total in either sending an inmate to the death chamber or imposing a new sentence for the first time in about 40 years.

Two people were handed death sentences in Oklahoma this year.

A Cleveland County judge on Friday upheld a jury’s death sentence recommendation for Alton Nolen in the 2014 beheading of a co-worker in Moore.

Oklahoma County’s sole death sentence of 2017 was against Ronnie Fuston, who was convicted in a 2013 gang-related shooting.

“We’re all watching Oklahoma to see what happens next,” Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham told the Tulsa World. “The new death sentence numbers this year nationwide show that fewer death sentences were imposed this year than in almost any year since the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972.”

The Supreme Court reinstated the use of the death penalty in 1976, and Oklahoma carried out its first modern-era execution in 1990.

Dunham said three U.S. counties, none of which is in Oklahoma, accounted for 12 of the 39 expected death sentences in 2017, which he said is illustrative of the idea that the death penalty “is largely subject to the whims of local prosecutors.”

He added, however, that Oklahoma County has historically handed down a disproportionately high number of such sentences.

“Oklahoma County is one of the few counties in the U.S. that has averaged at least one death sentence a year for the last five years, and it’s one of only six counties that has averaged more than one death sentence per year in the last three years,” he said.

Current state moratorium

The last execution in Oklahoma was that of Charles Warner, who died by lethal injection in January 2015. An autopsy first reported by The Oklahoman revealed that one of the drugs used was not part of the DOC’s lethal injection protocol.

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office requested an indefinite stay of executions in October 2015 after it became aware that the same incorrect drug — potassium acetate — was what the DOC had received for Richard Glossip’s scheduled execution.

The AG’s Office called on the DOC to again revise its protocol despite a recent overhaul that followed the controversial 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett using the drug midazolam.

The last status report, filed Nov. 30 with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, says the DOC has yet to finalize a new protocol. Attorney General’s Office spokesman Alex Gerszewski said Wednesday that the agency is still in the process of completing a protocol, which will then enable the scheduling of executions.

“We’re still working in conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office to develop a protocol, so there’s not really anything new to report,” DOC spokesman Matt Elliott said. “There’s no information on when anything might be finalized.”

The Oklahoma Board of Corrections has not had any agenda items since October 2015 indicating that the use of lethal injection would be up for discussion at its monthly meetings.

A multicounty grand jury under the purview of the state Attorney General’s Office issued a report in May 2016 calling state officials’ conduct during execution preparations “careless.”

The grand jury said it found that secrecy surrounding how the DOC obtained the drugs used in Warner’s execution and allocated for Glossip’s was a factor in both having occurred contrary to the lethal injection protocol.

Then-DOC Director Robert Patton, who has since taken a job at an Arizona private prison; Steve Mullins, Gov. Mary Fallin’s then-general counsel; and Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Anita Trammell either retired or resigned in the months following the start of the grand jury’s work.

Also, a bipartisan Death Penalty Review Commission led by former Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry recommended earlier this year that state officials implement more than 40 recommendations that would, among other things, mitigate the risk of wrongful convictions and mistakes when executions take place.

The commission’s recommendations are nonbinding, but the Death Penalty Information Center’s Dunham said he has seen positive steps toward following its advice, including the drafting of improved rules for appointing death penalty-qualified legal counsel.

“The District Attorneys (Council) also conducted a training session over the summer on wrongful convictions, and while that is only a preliminary step, that’s a promising step,” he said. “It remains to be seen whether that will have an impact in practice, but it’s promising.”

Death penalty requests

Although nationwide support for the death penalty has continually decreased, requests for its imposition have been made recently in the Oklahoma court system, including in Tulsa County, which has not handed down a death sentence since 2009 or held a capital trial since early 2014.

Voters approved State Question 776 last year, which enshrines option of imposing the death penalty in the Oklahoma Constitution, although critics have said it limits the judiciary’s ability to adequately review death sentences.

Logan County District Attorney Laura Austin Thomas announced her intent earlier this year to seek the death penalty for Nathan LeForce, who is charged with killing Logan County Sheriff’s Deputy David Wade.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater also filed notice in August that he will seek the death penalty in the case of Roshaun Jones of Midwest City in a double homicide that occurred at a Del City laundromat.

In Tulsa County, District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler has requested death penalty consideration for four defendants in three cases: Gregory Epperson, accused of strangling Tulsa teenager Kelsey Tennant in her apartment; Gerald Lowe and Michaela Riddle, charged with torturing Courtney Palmer in a gang-related altercation and burning his body after his death; and Jacky Mayfield, who is accused of killing two people at a Tulsa park in the presence of two small children.

Epperson’s case is Kunzweiler’s first capital case since he took office in 2014.

Kunzweiler has said each of the cases under his jurisdiction has aggravating factors, such as heinousness, that warrant a judge’s or jury’s evaluation of whether a death sentence is appropriate.

He took part in the Death Penalty Review Commission study, as did former Chief Public Defender Rob Nigh, who argued multiple times that capital proceedings are not cost-effective due to lengthy pretrial and post-conviction litigation.

Dunham said state officials in Oklahoma need to follow the commission’s recommendations if they want to continue sentencing people to death.

“If Oklahoma wants to do the death penalty right, it has to provide meaningful death penalty representation,” he said. “That will make death penalty trials cost more, but it will reduce the number of cases that end up with the death penalty, which ultimately could save the state money.”

Source: Tulsa World, Samantha Vicent, December 16, 2017. Samantha Vicent covers Tulsa County District Court proceedings, law enforcement use of force and the Oklahoma prison system, including the death penalty.

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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