Oklahoma, abolish the death penalty? The phrase “abolish the death penalty” doesn’t seem to belong in the same sentence as “Oklahoma.” But, as the lyrics in a famous Bob Dylan song say, “The times they are a-changin’.”
In the past few months, signs of change in Oklahoma have been seen in many quarters, registered in questions about the death penalty’s fairness and reliability raised just last week by prominent conservative voices in the state as well as in the changing attitudes of Oklahoma’s people.
And that “the times are a-changin’” in this deep red state that has long been a hotbed for America’s death penalty, signals that the tide is turning against capital punishment throughout the country.
To get a sense of the state of play in Oklahoma, let’s start by looking at the results of the 2022 elections and how they have already altered the death penalty landscape in Oklahoma. Two of those results seem particularly consequential.
First, last June, Gentner Drummond defeated incumbent John O’Connor in the Republican primary for state attorney general. And Drummond, who had only token opposition in the general election, won easily in November.
Soon after Drummond took office, nine former Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) officials wrote to him expressing concerns about the death penalty and the way it was being used in the state.
They described the impact of repeated executions on prison staff. As they put it, the “relentless pace of executions means the prison never really returns to normal operations after the emotional and logistical upheaval of an execution. Indeed, reports from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary describe near-constant mock executions being conducted within earshot of prisoners’ cells, staff offices, and visiting rooms.”
They called Drummond’s attention to “The psychological toll of carrying out a death sentence… Post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and even suicide increase among corrections staff following proximity to an execution, even among those who did not participate directly.”
Four days after he received their letter, the attorney general asked the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to reverse its previous approval of a controversial plan to carry out 25 executions by the end of 2024. As Drummond said at the time, “[T]he current pace of executions is unsustainable in the long run, as it is unduly burdening the DOC and its personnel.”
The court quickly agreed to slow the pace at which Oklahoma’s planned executions would be carried out.
Then, in another acknowledgment of the serious problems that have plagued Oklahoma’s death penalty, Drummond appointed an independent counsel to investigate one of those planned executions, the execution of Richard Glossip, who has been on Oklahoma’s death row for more than 20 years for a crime he almost certainly did not commit.
A report in The Intercept noted that Drummond’s decision to launch the investigation “caught many Oklahomans by surprise, including activists, attorneys, and people on death row.”
Returning to the 2022 November election results, voters in Oklahoma County chose Vicki Behenna, the former executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, to be their district attorney. Although Behenna did not campaign against the death penalty, the election of someone known for her “tenacious efforts on behalf of the wrongly convicted” was another sign of change for Oklahoma’s death penalty.
As the Death Penalty Information Center describes it, Oklahoma County “has imposed more death sentences in the past fifty years than any other county its size (population between 750,000–1,000,000), imposed more death sentences in the past decade than any other county with a population under 2.25 million people, and carried out more than 2.5 times the number of executions of any other comparably sized county. The county also has had more death-row prisoners exonerated than all but three other U.S. counties.”
So Behenna’s decisions to bring, or not to bring, capital prosecutions will affect not just the county over which she has jurisdiction but the entire state.
Beyond the election results and their consequences, several other recent developments also point toward a changing death penalty climate in Oklahoma.
Soon after the November election, a large group of religious leaders from across the state issued a statement, in the name of Christians in Oklahoma. They gave it the title “Christ and Capital Punishment.”
Their statement called for “an immediate moratorium on the death penalty in Oklahoma.”
But their appeal went further. It outlined a Biblical argument against execution, citing passages from Genesis through the Epistles. They wrote, “[M]ercy, compassion, equity, and justice of God” should be “reflected in public policies that promote human flourishing for all Oklahomans.”
And on February 24, a group of Oklahoma’s political and religious conservatives announced their support for a death penalty moratorium.
One of their number, State Rep. Kevin McDugle, pointed out that ten men have been exonerated from Oklahoma’s death row in the past few decades. “I could not stand to see an innocent man put to death in Oklahoma,” he said, “And I happen to know that Oklahomans don’t want to put an innocent man to death either.”
A poll conducted in January supports McDugle’s claim. It found that more than 75% of Oklahomans support a pause on executions.
McDugle also said that he would seek to abolish the death penalty if Richard Glossip is executed. He is not alone. An article in LAW360 reports that “Nearly three dozen state lawmakers, mostly Republicans and some who have been supportive of the death penalty, have voiced concerns with Glossip’s execution.”
But many Oklahomans aren’t waiting to see what happens to Glossip.
The January poll shows that they already “prefer some version of a life sentence over the death penalty 52% to 36%.” This result is only slightly different from national polls that show that 60% of Americans prefer life in prison without parole to the death penalty.
While it is too early to say that the 2022 election results, the objections of religious leaders, doubts among conservative politicians, and declining public support make the end of Oklahoma’s death penalty inevitable, it is not too early to see the seeds of abolition that are being planted in a state that has long been a leader in using death as a punishment.
Maybe, before too long, seeing sentences about Oklahoma and the abolition of capital punishment will not seem so strange after all.