To Comfort The Afflicted
And Afflict The Comfortable

To Comfort The Afflicted And Afflict The Comfortable

Friday, November 26, 2021

Observercast

Death Watch

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UPDATE, 8:30 pm Oct. 25: The state Pardon and Parole Board has postponed Julius Jones’ clemency hearing until Nov. 1 to allow court challenges to play out.

UPDATE, 4:30 pm Oct. 25: A federal judge today refused to block executions until after a trial can determine the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection protocol. The death row inmates’ attorneys say they will appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Oklahoma bloodlust will be on full display this week.

On Monday, the state is scheduled to explain in federal court why it broke a promise not to schedule any executions until a trial next February can determine the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection protocol.

On Tuesday, the state Pardon and Parole Board is set to decide whether to recommend clemency for Julius Jones, whose claims of innocence have attracted global attention.

And on Thursday, if a court does not intervene, John Marion Grant could become the first Oklahoma inmate put to death since 2015 when then-Gov. Mary Fallin paused capital punishment after two bungled executions.

Why are we still doing this?

Credible studies over the decades have concluded capital punishment is not a deterrent. Further, it costs taxpayers far more in legal costs to pursue an eye-for-an-eye than to simply warehouse a life-without-parole convict.

And then there’s the possibility – probability? – a far-from-perfect criminal justice system could sentence an innocent to death, as I noted in a recent column:

Consider this sobering reality: it’s likely some of the 192 executed since statehood were innocent. Since The New York-based Innocence Project and Oklahoma City University’s Oklahoma Innocence Project began digging into wrongful conviction claims, 34 Oklahoma inmates have been exonerated, including seven on death row.

That’s seven lives the state mistakenly could have snuffed out had not dogged investigators, DNA technology and other 21st century tools uncovered the truth.

One is too many. Seven is unthinkable. And unconscionable.

State Pardon and Parole Board Chair Adam Luck no doubt spoke for many Oklahomans when he detailed his support for the board’s recommendation that Jones’ punishment be commuted to a life sentence with the possibility of parole:

“Personally, I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubts. And put simply, I have doubts about this case.”

Four death row inmates – Grant, Jones, Donald Grant and Gilbert Postelle – are scheduled to die by lethal injection between Thursday and Feb. 17.

Their lawyers seek to block the executions, citing an agreement with former Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter to wait until after a trial next February can determine the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection protocol.

If it is determined the state is bound by the deal, the death chamber would remain dark.

Meanwhile, the state Pardon and Parole Board is in the crosshairs of a political and legal firestorm as it prepares to consider whether to recommend Jones for clemency.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater has sought to legally force two board members to recuse themselves, contending they cannot be impartial. State courts have ruled against each such effort.

In response, Prater is trying to bully the state board via a grand jury investigation of their conduct. In effect, he is using the power of his office to threaten board members with prosecution if they dare vote their consciences.

Thankfully, a rare citizens’ petition drive aimed at impaneling a grand jury to examine Prater’s conduct won court approval last week.

Prater isn’t running for re-election, so he may not care, but he’s undoubtedly tarnished his career with over-the-top histrionics in Jones’ case.

Meanwhile, the state’s recently appointed AG John O’Connor is flip-flopping when it comes to the parole board and Jones.

One week he told News9’s Storme Jones that “I think the pardon and parole board is functioning as it should. I may disagree with its decisions, but it’s five individuals appointed to that board who are entitled to have their own opinions.”

The next, O’Connor signed off on a brief urging the state Supreme Court to block Luck and Kelly Doyle from voting in the Jones’ matter.

Even more surprising: O’Connor targeted Luck’s Christian faith in an attempt to discredit him.

“He believes himself to be bound by the Bible to release people from prison,” a legal brief submitted under O’Connor’s name declared. “Chairman Luck does not appear to be able to set aside his religious and political beliefs in his role as a Board member.”

Think about that. O’Connor was appointed AG by Gov. Kevin Stitt, whose public faith declarations helped make him a darling of the evangelical right. And O’Connor himself hardly has been bashful touting his religiosity.

Yet he attacks Luck for being “bound by the Bible” and unable to “set aside his religious” beliefs.

Imagine the outrage on the political right if O’Connor were a Democrat? Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. Just think about reactions from the political/evangelical right during U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for now-Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

To be clear: The point of this discussion is not the guilt or innocence of any death row inmates. It’s whether state-sanctioned killing should remain an option given the obvious flaws in our criminal justice system.

As I’ve argued before, Oklahomans don’t want innocent blood on their hands. It’s time to permanently retire the executioner.

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Arnold Hamilton
Arnold Hamilton became editor of The Observer in September 2006. Previously, he served nearly two decades as the Dallas Morning News’ Oklahoma Bureau chief. He also covered government and politics for the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Times Herald, the Tulsa Tribune and the Oklahoma Journal.