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Dead Man Sitting: The future of the death penalty in Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY-- Except for Texas, Oklahoma executes more inmates than any other state.

But right now, those executions here are on hold, and 47 offenders are just sitting on death row.

What happens next will be up to a new group of decision makers after a long list of mistakes in 2015.

You may remember the war of words between Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and Don Knight, the attorney for a man sitting on death row.

"This is crap. This is a bull**** PR campaign, that's all it is," Prater said.

"If it was a bull**** PR campaign, I guess I wouldn't have brought an affidavit with me," Knight said.

The heated argument over potential new evidence happened just before everything unraveled in one of the most highly publicized death penalty cases in the world.

In September 2015, Governor Mary Fallin halted the execution of Richard Glossip with an eleventh hour stay.

Glossip was convicted in the 1997 murder of his boss, Barry Van Treese.

There was a drug mix-up at the Department of Corrections, and it wasn’t the first time.

An autopsy revealed Charles Warner was put to death with a drug that’s not in our state protocol.

A scathing 106 page grand jury report revealed a series of mistakes from the governor’s office to the state pen.

“I think someone should have been indicted,” former State Senator Connie Johnson said. “No one was held accountable. We want to educate the people so that they will hold our officials accountable."

Johnson and her anti-death penalty organization are fighting to defeat a state question on the November ballot.

“If we pass this measure, we'll be setting ourselves up for suits, costly lawsuits,” Johnson said.

A “yes” vote on SQ776 would put the death penalty in Oklahoma’s constitution. And it wouldn't do much more than that.

It would allow any method of execution as long as it's legal under the federal constitution, but that's what we already have now.

Legal experts say it's just one more thing politicians can hang their hat on to rile up their supporters.

“It reminds me of the ‘no Sharia law’ question that we had a couple years ago. I would challenge you to go anywhere in the state of Oklahoma and find a judge who is employing Sharia law,” defense attorney Perry Hudson said.

While executions remain on hold, a new independent group is doing something never done before in Oklahoma.

“I think the grand jury's report should be appalling to Oklahomans,” former Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry said.

Former Governor Brad Henry answered the call from a nonprofit called “The Constitution Project.”

He’s leading the new death penalty review commission. It’s a diverse panel of lawyers and businessmen, republicans, and democrats.

“This is not about making political points at all. It's all about looking at the data, looking very carefully at the research, and determining the facts in our systems so we can make informed decisions related to our findings and ultimate recommendations,” Henry said.

They’re looking at every issue from the point of arrest to the protocol used in the execution of a death row inmate.

“We’re looking at the confession process, how many confessions are false confessions, see how many are coerced and the processes there,” Henry said.

They’re also researching racial issues and potential problems with juries.

“Eyewitness identification is notoriously unreliable, and so we may be making consensus recommendations that would really be directed toward law enforcement,” Henry said.

The criminal justice system isn’t perfect. Defense attorney Perry Hudson has had an innocent client freed from death row and others released when their cases fell apart.

“We have sent far too many people to death row to simply trust the process, and that's despite the fact we have honest prosecutors, and we have fair judges, and we have an appellate court that reviews it on the state and federal level,” Hudson said.

Other attorneys stand by the death penalty. They say it’s the only just sentence for the worst of the worst.

Lou Keel prosecuted Charles Warner, the man who raped and killed 11-month-old Adrianna Waller. “Certainly when you make the decision to file a bill of particulars seeking the death penalty, that's something you have to believe is the right thing to do in your mind and in your heart,” Keel said.

When executions resume in our state, they will be carried out under new leadership.

DOC Director Robert Patton, Warden Anita Trammell, and Steve Mullins, the governor’s top attorney, have all resigned.

“If we are going to have the death penalty in Oklahoma, it must be done right. And it hasn't been in the past,” Henry said.

Former Governor Henry and his panel plan to present their recommendations before the new legislative session in February.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Scott Pruitt told Newschannel 4 he will not seek another execution for several more months.