Journey to Justice: The death penalty in Oklahoma

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There’s been no shortage of drama surrounding executions in Oklahoma this year.

A drug mix-up, a slew of lawsuits and a high profile case have put our state once again in the national spotlight.

Right now, all executions are on hold while the attorney general's office investigates one of its own agencies - the Department of Corrections.

NewsChannel 4's Abby Broyles reports on the death penalty in Oklahoma.

On October 15, 1979, a crime left deep scars on two young children from Okarche.

At the Douglass family farmhouse off Highway 3, two drifters terrorized mom, dad, son and daughter for hours.

Back then, Brooks Douglass was just 16 years old.

“I heard the front door open up, and I looked around and saw Steven Hatch standing inside the doorway with a double barrel shotgun," Brooks said. "Then, when I turned back around to Ake, he was pulling a 357 magnum out of his boot and pointed it right in my face."

The intruders showed no mercy.

Hatch and Glen Ake hogtied Brooks and his parents.

They took his younger sister, Leslie, around the house to grab the family’s valuables.

They yanked out every phone in the house and even ate the family’s dinner.

Then, the real torture began.

Ake took 12-year-old Leslie to a bedroom and raped her.

Next, it was Hatch’s turn.

“We could hear her just sobbing from down the hallway," Brooks said. "Of course, my mom - her head was right next to mine, and she was just crying."

The nightmare went on for hours before Ake shot each member of the Douglass family.

Miraculously, Brooks and Leslie survived.

Their parents’ killers were captured about a month later.

The district attorney sought the death penalty.

It was the beginning of a long, emotional road for the Douglass kids.

“Most of the time, you’re looking at 10-20 years of your life and, in some cases, longer than that are going to be taken up by this whole gauntlet of appeals that you’re going through," Brooks said. "You could be called back at any time to relive everything that happened."

Brooks and Leslie had to relive that terrible night too often, testifying nine times over 17 years through multiple trials and appeals.

Emotionally, their lives would intertwine with the two cold blooded killers for decades.

“I remember nightmares of things that he said very clearly in my head,” Leslie said.

Only one of the killers was executed.

Ake got his conviction overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

He had originally pleaded insanity, but an Oklahoma court wouldn’t let him take a psychiatric evaluation to prove it.

So, he got another trial, and this time was sentenced to life in prison.

“I found out the hard way that victims’ rights really didn’t exist," Brooks said. "In my heart, I felt like something had to change."

Brooks became a state senator and spear-headed a bill that allowed victims’ families to witness executions.

Some families choose to go, and some don’t.

In recent months, controversy surrounding the death penalty and last-minute stays have crushed the possibility of closure for the family of Barry Van Treese.

His killer, Richard Glossip, has been spared his life four times - most recently, when the Department of Corrections got the wrong execution drug.

Some legal experts said the Glossip case is reason to take another look at the death penalty in our state.

Is it used too often? Is it worth all the expenses surrounding appeals? Is there a chance we could execute an innocent person?

“If I’d been the DA at the time, I wouldn’t have filed the death penalty on it, because I don’t think it’s solid enough in retrospect to be sure beyond any doubt," said legal analyst Andy Coats. "I’m not sure anyone can look at the Glossip case and not have a fragment of doubt."

Coats, former DA and dean of OU Law School, is for the death penalty but has concerns over how often it’s used.

“There have been so many cases in recent times that have made all of us uncomfortable with the death penalty, because there are so many people that have been charged with the death penalty and turned out they didn’t commit the crime,” Coats said.

Former DA and attorney general, Mike Turpen, has also sent offenders to death row.

Now, he wants the death penalty abolished in Oklahoma.

“The implementation of the death penalty in Oklahoma or anywhere else frankly, it puts too much pressure on the system," Turpen said. "We can’t get it right. You can’t get it right legally. You can’t get it right logistically, and all that is so unfair to the victims’ families."

It’s a fact: Sometimes, juries get it wrong.

Twelve men have been freed from Oklahoma’s death row after their cases fell apart.

But, more than 100 offenders have been executed at the state pen in McAlester, including Hatch.

He was put to death for the murders of Brooks’ parents, Richard and Marilyn Douglass.

Leslie and her brother watched it happen.

“It was strange, because I was watching what was happening in the room and, at the same time, it was like I was re-watching that night that my parents were murdered,” Brooks said.

Brooks and Leslie said witnessing Hatch’s execution was an important part of their healing process.

“I knew I was never going to have to go back and testify again, that it was completely over," Brooks said. "I think there’s such an emotional sigh of relief. For us, it was 17 years."

It’s been nearly 20 years since Hatch was executed.

Opinions on the death penalty have changed.

Of course, executions in our state are on hold right now.

Some legal experts think one day the death penalty may even become an antiquated form of punishment in Oklahoma.

“We’re one of the last countries in the world that has the death penalty for these kinds of crimes," Coats said. "I think there will be a 'rethink' of the death penalty - Do we want to do that? I think the tendency will be to slow it down.”

Right now, 49 offenders live on Oklahoma’s death row.

They’ll all stay there until at least spring of next year while the state attorney general investigates Oklahoma’s past two executions.

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