On January 30, Oklahoma’s Attorney General Gentner Drummond and Steven Harpe, Director of Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC), filed a motion asking the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to approve their plan to execute six people, with 90 days separating each one of the executions. If the state carries out these executions, it will further solidify its status as one of this country’s most active death penalty jurisdictions.
As the Associated Press noted last year, while “public support and use of the death penalty … continued its more than two-decade decline in the U.S., … support remains high in Oklahoma. A state ballot question in 2016 on whether to enshrine the death penalty in the Oklahoma Constitution received more than 65% of the vote.”
A close look at the reasons Drummond and Harpe gave for slowing the pace of Oklahoma executions and at the cases of the people they want to execute offers a disturbing look at the death penalty system in this country.
Let’s start with the reasons Drummond and Harpe gave in explaining why they were requesting 90-day intervals between executions.
Their motion quotes Harpe as explaining that “scheduling of an execution date triggers a series of tasks that must be completed by DOC staff, many of which must occur weeks before the scheduled execution. In addition, the day of an execution affects not only those directly involved in the execution, but the entirety of Oklahoma State Penitentiary, which goes into a near complete lockdown until the execution is completed.”
In an affidavit attached to the motion, Harpe says: “Based on the executions I have overseen, and in my judgment as executive director, the present pace of executions, every 60 days, is too onerous and not sustainable. Instead, a sustainable pace would be every 90 days.”
Harpe told Oklahoma News 4 that “The previous model put a massive strain on ODOC to carry out daily operations due to the time the employees spent away from their primary posts to perform the required number of drills.” Adjusting the execution schedule, he claimed, “will allow ODOC to carry out the court-ordered warrants within a timeframe that will minimize the disruptions to normal operations. This pace also protects our team’s mental health and allows time for them to process and recover between the scheduled executions.”
“Process and recover” from killing another human being, all in 90 days. Seems a bit machine-like to me.
In fact, there is a lot of evidence that the toll on members of execution teams everywhere is substantial and enduring.
A 2022 NPR investigation found that death penalty workers across the country “reported suffering serious mental and physical repercussions. But only one person said they received any psychological support from the government to help them cope.”
NPR says that “The experience was enough to shift many of their perspectives on capital punishment. No one whom NPR spoke with whose work required them to witness executions in Virginia, Nevada, Florida, California, Ohio, South Carolina, Arizona, Nebraska, Texas, Alabama, Oregon, South Dakota or Indiana expressed support for the death penalty afterward.”
The NPR story quotes Jeanne Woodford, a warden who oversaw four executions in California. Woodford had to “speak with the person slated to die, then talk with his family to receive instructions for what to later do with his body. Afterward, she had to speak with the other family involved, too—the family of the victim. You just don’t know what to say to people who are in so much pain. And no one is sensitive to the fact that you as the warden are sitting there thinking, in 30 days, I’m going to have to go in and give the order to carry out an execution of a human being.”
“People think that it would be so easy to go up and execute someone who had committed such heinous acts,” Woodford said. “But the truth is, killing a human being is hard. It should be hard.”
Or as Perrin Damon, a spokeswoman who helped coordinate two executions for the Oregon Department of Corrections, told NPR, “There was more than one casualty. More people are involved than anyone understands.”
And those casualties are unlikely—Harpe to the contrary notwithstanding—to be healed by the 90-day break between executions that Oklahoma is planning.
Beyond the unconvincing argument about staff recovery time, the cases that Oklahoma wants to queue up put the injustices of the death penalty in glaring relief.
Take the case of Tremane Wood.
As a 2022 UPI story noted, Wood “was sentenced to death for the first-degree murder of Ronnie Wipf in 2001, in Oklahoma City. His brother, Zjaiton ‘Jake’ Wood, who said he was the one who stabbed Wipf to death, received a life sentence for the crime.”
The lawyers now representing Wood claim that “in addition to not being the one who actually killed Wipf, … their client’s court-appointed trial lawyer was addicted to cocaine, alcohol and prescription pills at the time of his case.” His trial counsel never presented the kind of mitigation evidence that often persuades juries, even Oklahoma juries, not to impose a death sentence.
Jurors were never told that Tremane Wood “was neglected by his parents and learned to ‘survive by bonding with his abusive and violent older brother.’” They also did not know that Tremane suffers from PTSD, the result of violence and neglect that he witnessed and endured throughout his life.
The jury that convicted Wood was made up of 10 white people, one Black person, and one Hispanic person. The Black juror said later that she was “under pressure” from the majority-white jurors to vote for death.
As if that were not enough, in the other cases that are the subject of Drummond and Harpe’s motion, one person suffered from severe brain damage at the time he committed his crime, a second also suffered from brain damage, and the other cases, like Wood’s, were decided by juries that were not presented with crucial mitigating evidence.
Changing the pace of executions, as Drummond and Harpe want to do, may serve the state. But it does nothing to address what the death penalty does to those who administer it or the profound problems that plague it in Oklahoma and everywhere the state kills.