A bipartisan private commission recommended that a court-ordered stay on executions in Oklahoma remain in effect until “significant reforms” are accomplished, citing concerns about resources available to those facing death sentences and the faulty application of execution procedures, reported the Tulsa World.
The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission released its findings and nearly four dozen recommendations in a nearly 300-page report on a study of capital cases from initial contact with police to the day defendants are put to death.
Former Gov. Brad Henry, who helped lead the effort, announced that the commission unanimously recommended that the moratorium be extended due to what he said were serious flaws in the way Oklahoma handles death-penalty cases. He said the number of death-row exonerees from Oklahoma — 10, according to the Death Penalty Information Center — was among his biggest worries, along with the discovery of the limitations capital defendants have when presenting legal defenses.
“If you look at the various defense counsel organizations, whether it’s (the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System) or Oklahoma County or Tulsa County public defenders, they are just overwhelmed with felony cases,” Henry said. “They don’t have enough attorneys. They don’t have the funding that they need, especially in death-penalty cases, to hire investigators (or) to hire experts. You have to decide whether you want to pay to do it right, and either you do or you don’t.”
Oklahoma has put more than 100 people to death in the modern era of capital punishment, and according to commission member and trial lawyer Robert Alexander, it’s almost certain that at least one of them was innocent and couldn’t prove it because of financial reasons.
“Our report has found, 41 years (after the death penalty resumed), systemic flaws in our death-penalty system,” Alexander said. “Whenever there’s a systemic flaw in the system, any injustices that system could cause … fall on the people with the fewest resources to navigate that system.”
The commission also noted that two forms of evidence — forensics and witness identification — were determined to be among the most unreliable.
Henry said he came to the conclusion that the process as it stands needs to be “overhauled” by policymakers, and he said there are good reasons for conservatives to be concerned about the practice despite voters’ November decision to protect the death penalty in the state constitution with State Question 776.
“What we all agreed on was that if you’re going to have the death penalty, it ought to be done right,” Henry said of the commission. “It ought to be done in a way that, as best we can, ensures no innocent person is ever put to death by the state of Oklahoma.”
Co-Chairman Andy Lester, a former federal magistrate, said the fact that an execution is permanent makes it paramount that everyone involved be certain that those on death row are in fact guilty and that they’ve received the best possible legal aid.
“Nobody wants to execute an innocent person,” he said. “If one of (the 10 exonerees) slipped through, just think how horrible that would be. It’s bad enough that somebody gets wrongfully convicted. It’s possible to recreate a life after a wrongful conviction, but it is not possible after a wrongful execution.”
Gov. Mary Fallin released a brief statement Tuesday evening after the report was made public indicating that she’s not yet well-versed on its contents.
“My office has not received a copy of the report, but my staff will obtain a copy and review it,” she said.
The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office requested a moratorium in October 2015 once it learned about issues with a lethal-injection drug used in the January execution of Charles Warner and the scheduled execution of Richard Glossip. Those mistakes occurred after Oklahoma received international attention for the 43-minute execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014.
A multicounty grand jury issued a highly critical report in May 2016 about the handling of Glossip’s and Warner’s cases by multiple state agencies. The grand jury recommended that the Department of Corrections overhaul its protocol yet again but did not recommend any indictments.
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