BY RICHARD L. FRICKER
Addressing the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, Gen. Colin Powell described supposed eyewitness accounts of the Iraqi government’s execution of criminal prisoners with chemical injections. He described prisoners being tied to beds, injected and left to die as onlookers observed their deaths. Powell concluded, “Saddam Hussein’s inhumanity has no limits.”
Eight days later in McAlester OK, Bobby Joe Fields was tied to a bed and injected with chemicals as government officials and selected civilians watched him die. As Fields breathed his last at 6:05 p.m. no tanks rolled across Oklahoma’s state line, there were no “bunker busters” raining down on the state capital or the McAlester death house. Field’s death was just one more execution in a state with the highest per capita execution rate in the country.
Only two things made Fields’ death even moderately noticeable; the State Parole Board had recommended clemency and his was the first execution in the administration of newly elected Democratic Gov. Brad Henry.
The board had only recommended clemency from a death sentence five times in state history. Henry, new to office by only a few weeks and eager to please the state’s growing conservative movement, bowed and allowed the execution to move forward.
Fields was the first of 37 executions to date during the two-term Henry administration. Henry still lags behind Republican predecessor Frank Keating who oversaw 52 executions during his two terms.
Using the radio talk show “Community Issues on Tap” Ray Pearcey and co-hosts James O. Goodwin and Jack Giordano are attempting to create a dialogue on Oklahoma’s death penalty. Their Saturday show is carried on two low power Tulsa AM outlets KJMU 1140 and KEOR 1120 whose combined coverage reaches south to the state prison in McAlester and northward into Kansas. http://bit.ly/COMTAP2010
Pearcey has a background as a community activist and consultant to various government and non-government development agencies. Goodwin is a criminal defense and civil attorney. He is also publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle, an African-American weekly established in 1917 and owned by his family since 1932. Giordano is a retired human resources director for both government and private sector organizations. He currently is a part-time volunteer coordinator for Tulsa’s Catholic Charities.
Their first show featured Tulsa District Attorney Tim Harris and Defense Attorney M.J. Denman. For the most part, the discussion was a low-key affair with both men engaging in lawyer speak without impassioned rhetoric of their positions.
Harris arrived at the studio fresh from an evangelical prayer breakfast. He claimed not to know much about national statistics on death penalty, its costs or social ramifications. He mainly portrayed himself as a simple public servant carrying out the will of the people.
Capital punishment, Harris told the audience, was a “community decision” based on the findings of 12 of the defendant peers. He didn’t say that unless requested by the prosecution, a jury cannot impose the death penalty.
Noting he had attended two executions, Harris remarked at having watched two men “give up their lives.” What he didn’t say was that, much like the description delivered to the U.N. by Gen. Powell, these men didn’t “give” anything – they were strapped to a table and their lives taken from them by state officials as he with the other onlookers watched them die.
Denman questioned the finality of the death sentence, that once imposed there is no chance of correction for any error. He also noted that under Oklahoma law there are any number of circumstances for which the death penalty can be sought, suggesting that the state is always in the drivers seat on capital punishment. While the show was contained and polite, it did lay the groundwork for more lively exchanges in the future.
The following Monday KWGS-FM radio featured Texas defense attorney and author David R. Dow whose opposition to the death penalty is laid out in his book The Autobiography of an Execution.
While these shows might indicate a renewed awareness of the death penalty it should be noted that as Fisher was interviewing Dow, the Oklahoma House of Representatives was approving, 91-2, legislation to impose the death penalty for rapists of children. The bill was the brainchild of state Rep. Rex Duncan, R-Sand Springs, a candidate for district attorney in Pawnee and Osage counties who previously gained fame by refusing to accept a centennial edition of the Koran claiming Islam was based on violence. Duncan never addressed the plethora of stories in the Old Testament where the “chosen” razed cities and slaughtered the defenseless.
State Sen. Connie Johnson, D-OKC, has stated she will introduce legislation to abolish the death penalty during the 2011 legislative session. Such legislation may well stand the proverbial snowballs chance in a state that overwhelming re-elects Jim Inhofe and President Obama failed to carry even one of the 77 counties.
Last session the Oklahoma Legislature decisively agreed to erect an obelisk of the Ten Commandments on the Capitol lawn. Presumably “Thou Shall not Kill” will not be included.
Legislators seem unfazed by layoffs, state employee furloughs and foreclosures as they continue to support the million dollar per case cost of capital cases.
“Community Issues on Tap” will air its second death penalty show in the near future according to Pearcey, it is the only show of its type in the state, a faint AM voice echoing across a sea of red, but it is a voice.
– Richard L. Fricker lives in Tulsa, OK and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer