Oklahoma plans to execute James Coddington on August 25, the first of 25 people the state hopes to put to death over the next 29 months. He was convicted of murdering his friend Albert Hale during a 1997 drug-inspired robbery.
Coddington has filed a clemency petition with the Oklahoma Board of Pardons and Paroles, which on Tuesday will hold a hearing on his request.
His case for clemency is straightforward but controversial. Coddington accepts responsibility for his crime and contends that he is genuinely remorseful. He says that he has been rehabilitated and that he is a changed person.
Coddington’s plea for clemency is an important one for death penalty opponents who have had little success in persuading governors and presidents to be merciful in capital cases.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since the start of 2010 only 49 death-row inmates have been pardoned or had their sentences commuted. This represents a radical shift from several decades ago, when governors granted clemency in 20 to 25 percent of the capital cases they reviewed.
Rejecting appeals from religious leaders, former prosecutors, and even judges and jurors, governors now jealously guard their clemency power and exercise it sparingly.
Advocates of what might be called a “retributive” theory of clemency have carried the day in persuading governors and presidents that, as Kathleen Dean Moore puts it, “The only good and sufficient reason for pardoning a felon is that justice is better served by pardoning than by punishing in this particular case.” Clemency is a “backup system that works outside the rules to correct mistakes….”
When they have pardoned or commuted death sentences, chief executives have eschewed arguments about rehabilitation and redemption in favor of granting clemency in cases where there are concerns about an erroneous conviction or some other element of unfairness or procedural error.
Typical was the 2011 case of Joseph Murphy, which turned on an argument about unfairness. Murphy’s death sentence was commuted by Ohio Governor John Kasich, who explained, “Considering Joseph Murphy’s brutally abusive upbringing and the relatively young age at which he committed his terrible crime, the death penalty is not appropriate in this case.”
Similarly, in a 2017 commutation granted by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson to Jason McGehee, Hutchinson said he was moved by unfairness manifest in the “disparity in the sentence given to Mr. McGehee compared to the sentences of his co-defendants.”
Since 2010, only Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has used his clemency power to save the life of a death row inmate on the grounds of post-conviction rehabilitation and redemption.
Bevin commuted Leif Halvorsen’s death sentence to life in prison without parole because, according to an American Bar Association report, the inmate had “transformed his life in prison. While there, “he earned two college degrees and served as an advisor to young prison inmates who need guidance. He has repeatedly voiced remorse and deep regret for his crime. Prison officials, faith leaders, and others joined in support of his clemency petition.”
As Governor Bevin put it, “Leif has a powerful voice that needs to be heard by more people.”
Coddington’s appeal for clemency is a reminder of a tradition in which clemency was accorded to people who had turned their lives around during their time in prison. In this tradition, clemency rewarded rehabilitation and recognized redemption.
Elizabeth Rapaport says that a redemptive approach to clemency treats “punishment…as part of a dynamic process, at least potentially of transformation.” Using this approach, chief executives take an interest in who prisoners become and what they do once their punishment begins.
In this view, prisoners who experience a moral transformation, acknowledge their wrongdoing, and give evidence of a desire to serve the community and reconcile with those they have harmed have a stronger case for clemency than those who do not, regardless of the justness of their original conviction and sentence.
Clemency as redemption, Rapaport notes, “rejects the Manichean division of people into good and evil…. From the redemptive perspective, free citizens are also mean, weak, selfish, and takers of bad risks. And transgressors, like the rest of us, have the potential for morally adequate lives and lives of high moral achievement.”
Rapaport concludes that “Hope is also a redemptive criminal justice value: the example of clemency…would foster hope for release and reconciliation among those willing to take on the rigors of self-transformation.”
In his clemency petition, Coddington’s lawyers argue that he “exemplifies the principles of redemption.”
“While on death row,” they contend, “James has attained and maintained sobriety, breaking the cycle of addiction that plagued his life since early childhood. He has maintained clear conduct for more than 15 years. Based on that exemplary behavior, James earned the trusted position of run-man. He works daily to be of service to everyone with whom he interacts.”
Redemption is indicated, his lawyers argue, because “He takes full responsibility for his actions and the consequences of those actions. He has repented and abandoned his prior life. He has remorse for his actions against Albert Hale, for the suffering Mr. Hale experienced, and for the suffering Mr. Hale’s loved ones continue to experience. James recognizes the consequences of his drug-fueled actions reverberated through multiple families – including his own – to this day.”
They conclude that “James has lived his transformation on death row. His sobriety, service, and compliance with rules of the society in which he lives are documented. The man the jury convicted and sentenced to death no longer exists.”
Over the last decade, Oklahoma’s Board of Pardons and Paroles and its governors have granted clemency petitions in only two capital cases.
In 2010, Governor Brad Henry commuted the sentence of Richard Tandy Smith on the grounds that life without parole was a more just punishment than execution.
And in November 2021, Governor Kevin Stitt commuted Julius Jones’s death sentence. He did so after the Board of Pardon and Parole had twice recommended by 3-1 votes that he do so.
Several members of the board said that they had doubts about the reliability of Jones’s conviction and, according to a New York Times report, his request for clemency had the support of several prominent conservatives including “Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union; Timothy Head, the executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition; and several Republican state lawmakers.”
In this context, Coddington’s request for clemency is a long shot.
But it offers Oklahoma the chance to revive a tradition of recognizing rehabilitation and redemption for people on death row. That tradition embodies the belief that, as Bryan Stevenson says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”