OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The House Judiciary – Criminal committee meeting began with a heated debate on Wednesday. The first bill up for consideration: House Bill 3903, which would prevent the Pardon and Parole Board from recommending the commutation or clemency of a convicted individual to the Governor.
HB3903’s author, Representative John Pfeiffer, R-District 38, stated multiple times in the committee meeting that the bill would simply clarify the authority of the Pardon and Parole Board and that it would not prevent new evidence from being heard in the courts nor would it prevent convicted individuals from appealing to the courts their innocence.
“The courts are there to deal with guilt or innocence,” said Rep. Pfeiffer.
Some committee members, including Representative Collin Walke, D-District 87 and Representative Jason Lowe, D-District 97, balked at the bill. Rep. Lowe pointed out the fact that the Pardon and Parole Board is not the final authority when deciding the convicted’s outcome.
“Julius Jones. They recommended that he receive life with the possibility of parole. The governor decided otherwise,” said Rep. Lowe “Why are we removing this avenue of relief when it’s not guaranteed that they will receive this relief?”
Rep. Pfeiffer, reiterated that HB3903 was placing in statute the clarification of the separation of powers.
“We’re not removing this avenue of relief. The Pardon and Parole Board is still there to grant relief. What the Pardon and Parole Board is not there to do and has never been there to do since 1944 is make determinations based on guilt or innocence. That’s for the court to decide,” said Rep. Pfeiffer. “And when we, again, when we cross those political bodies, when we fail to separate those powers out from the executive agencies into the judicial system, it undermines the whole system of separation of powers. The Pardon and Parole Board is still there. They can still grant clemency. They can still do pardons, paroles, commutations, all of that. None of that changes. It just deals with guilt or innocence, and that stays, as it has always been, under the purview of the court system.”
Furthermore, Rep. Pfeiffer stated that the court is the appropriate location for presenting innocence or guilt, not the Pardon and Parole Board.
“They still have the court system,” said Rep. Pfeiffer. “New evidence is discovered. They file a petition before the court. They get it gone before the court. What we’re simply doing here is clarifying that the body, the separation of powers, that the body who has the ability to take the time and the knowhow to review these claims of guilt or innocence handles that and not an executive agency.”
A passionate debate followed the lengthy back and forth of questions regarding HB3903.
Up first, Rep. Walke, using his one minute to quote CPAC:
“‘The American Conservative Union is a strongly pro-life organization. We believe the government has an affirmative obligation to protect innocent life. Anything less is unconscionable. But this logic applies to a person erroneously sent to death row every bit as much as it applies to an unborn child. Legislation for closing the possibility of clemency for an innocent person on death row is neither moral nor conservative, nor is it consistent with the values of those who founded our republic. The Founding Fathers understood the importance of granting wide discretion in the chief executive in matters of clemency.’ They go on to quote Alexander Hamilton, but I’m going to skip to the bottom. ‘Accordingly, ACU strongly opposes this legislation and urges you to reject it. We have recommended to our colleagues that the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Legislative Accountability that they rate a vote to approve HB3903 negatively,’” said Rep. Walke.
Rep. Lowe, also debated HB3903:
“I keep asking myself, when is enough, enough? When will we, as legislators in the great state of Oklahoma, actually live up to the values we claim to have? At a time when we are literally arguing whether the way we kill people in this state is even constitutional, we want to take away the only mercy they have left. I’m a lawyer and I can say with 100% certainty our system is flawed and it’s far from perfect. They get things wrong. Judges are human. Lawyers are human. We all are human and we make mistakes, and when they do, we have this system in place to correct those mistakes. The ignorance of this law is that it arrogantly pretends we should allow the judgments of people like us to be final. I say to everyone in this room and everyone who’s listening to this, only God should have the responsibility of final judgment, and He will judge us one day for laws we passed like this,” said Rep. Lowe.
The final debate, belonging to Rep. Pfeiffer.
“This bill doesn’t take away anybody’s chance for commutation or clemency,” said Rep. Pfeiffer. “This law does not take away anybody’s ability to bring forward new evidence. What this law clearly does is define the roles of the Pardon and Parole Board and the court systems. An independent court system, an independent judiciary is the bedrock of this country. This country whose court system was the first in the world to say, ‘you are innocent until proven guilty,’ and when we undermine that court system in any way and cede power away from 12 ordinary citizens and take it by an executive branch, that’s simply scary. Pardon and Parole Board deals with pardons and paroles. The same as they’ve done since the 1940s, 1944 when that was put in the state constitution. The courts deal with subjects of guilt or innocence. So it is and so this law says.”
After much debate, a vote of 5-5 was counted. The committee then took a brief respite. Just minutes later, one final vote came in, making the decision 6-5 in favor of passing the bill out of committee.
HB3903 will now advance to the House floor.