OKLAHOMA (KFOR) – With an execution less than a month away, former co-chairs of the Death Penalty Review Commission, including former Governor Brad Henry, are calling on state officials to put a halt to upcoming executions until the system is reformed.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has scheduled 25 executions to occur over the next 29 months.
The first execution is set for August 25, where James Coddington will be put to death for a murder he committed in 1997.
While 31 states have capital punishment laws, just four states—Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Florida—account for more than half of all executions administered since 1976.
Henry told KFOR he doesn’t think the state’s capital punishment is where it needs to be though.
“We [Death Penalty Review Commission] worked through every aspect of the death penalty process from the arrest to lethal injection,” said Henry. “We saw all kinds of inequities. We saw unfair tests. We saw problems that need to be addressed.”
In 2017, the Death Penalty Review Commission, an independent and bipartisan group, compiled a comprehensive report that is 300 pages long detailing flaws in the state’s death penalty process while also providing a solution.
46 reform recommendations reports the need for better training, better education and better procedures for police, prosecutors, judges and defense counsel in capital cases, and more.
Eyewitness identification has also come into question.
“Very, very powerful before a jury. But all of the experts tell us, all of the science tells us that eyewitness identification is one of the least reliable forms of evidence. And so, you know, there ought to be something to back up eyewitness identification before you commit someone to death,” Henry said.
Since 1989, 31% of wrongful convictions nationwide—in capital and non-capital cases—involved mistaken eyewitness testimony, according to the Death Penalty Review Commission’s 2017 report.
In Oklahoma, over that same period, mistaken eyewitness identification was present in 28% of the 32 known wrongful convictions.
Another Death Penalty Review Commission co-chair and former U.S. Magistrate, Andy Lester said another major issue is relying on bite marks along with other forensic evidence found.
“One of the best evidence tends not to be very, very scientific, so making sure that when the evidence is presented, we are using the best available scientific evidence,” said Lester. “I mean, not all cases are going to depend on scientific evidence, but those are let’s make sure we’re doing it the right way.”
In April 2015, the FBI revealed that members of an elite forensic unit had nearly universally overstated conclusions of hair analysis in a way that favored the prosecution over criminal defendants.
26 of 28 FBI agents/analysts—who testified in cases in 41 states—provided erroneous testimony or lab reports.
The FBI concluded that 3,000 cases were impacted; of the 500 cases it had reviewed, erroneous statements were made in 96% of cases in which examiners provided statements used to inculpate a defendant at trial. Defendants in at least 35 of these cases received the death penalty.
Of those, errors were identified in 33 cases, and nine of those defendants had already been executed, four died in prison, and four had been exonerated.
As of September 2016, seven of the cases reviewed by the FBI were from Oklahoma; one of them was a capital case and the defendant had already been executed.
Although that report has been available for five years and in both Governor Kevin Stitt’s and Attorney General John O’Connor’s hands, both Henry and Lester said zero of their reforms have seen the light of day.
“Presumably, some of that’s because of of funding. But candidly, most of the recommendations that we made require little, if any, funding,” stated Lester.
Henry doesn’t think any of the state’s current leaders have the “courage” to implement them.
“We are law and order in Oklahoma. We’re tough on crime as we should be. I’ve never argued we shouldn’t be, but we need to be right,” said Henry.
As a group, the Death Penalty Review Commission didn’t take a position on the death penalty. It was composed of eleven people, five women and six men.
The commission’s seats were filled by defense lawyers, judges, citizens, crime victim advocates, law professors, Republicans and Democrats.
“In light of the extensive information gathered from this year-long, in-depth study, the
Commission members unanimously recommend that the current moratorium on the
death penalty be extended,” the 2017 report read. “The Commission did not come to this decision lightly.”
There are currently 43 death row inmates in Oklahoma. Of that, 25 are set to be executed in the next 29 months.
“It’s just a travesty when we put an innocent person in prison. Can you imagine executing an innocent person? And we’ve had 10 death row inmates who have been exonerated, found innocent. That tells me that we’ve probably put some innocent people to death in the past,” said Henry.
Back in 2017, the Death Penalty Review Commission visited with the governor, the attorney general, prosecutors, and the judiciary.
News 4 reached out to the Governor’s Office, but did not receive a response.
The Attorney General’s Office told KFOR in a statement, “As recently as 2016, an overwhelming majority of Oklahomans voted to preserve the death penalty in our laws. Oklahomans do not want to execute an innocent person. Each capital case is painstakingly reviewed by both state and federal courts. The appeals can take from thirteen to thirty-six years. A person on death row can assert his or her innocence at any time. Any challenge should be raised through our court system.”
O’Connor went on to say,
All of the persons who are scheduled for execution have been afforded their due process rights over many years. As long as the death penalty remains a legal and appropriate punishment for the most evil and heinous crimes, this office will continue to enforce the law and make sure that justice is served for the victims of crime and for all Oklahomans. If the policy-makers want to change the law, that should be done through the legislature after vigorous public discussion.Attorney General for Oklahoma, John O’Connor.
A federal judge “very thoroughly” examined Oklahoma’s execution protocols and drugs in 2022 as well, finding it to be humane punishment.