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Anti-death penalty org wants to prevent executions from being enshrined in state constitution

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Connie Johnson is chairperson for the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) said Thursday at its annual meeting that the defeat of Oklahoma State Question 776 in November will be its top priority.

State Question 776, which goes to before Oklahoma voters in November, asks that all methods of execution shall be constitutionally allowed, and in any case where an execution method is deemed invalid, the measure would provide that “the death sentence shall remain in force until the sentence can be lawfully executed by any valid method.”

State Question 776 would also forbid the death penalty from being construed as “the infliction of cruel or unusual punishments.”

“We are ground zero in Oklahoma for eliminating the death penalty in America,” said Connie Johnson, chair for the OK-CADP. “State Question 776 presents a great opportunity to raise awareness and to talk about why we should not have the death penalty in Oklahoma. We need you out there this year on the campaign trail against SQ 776.” 

The spotlight has been on Oklahoma since the infamous executions of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner.

Warner, who was executed Jan. 15, 2015 with the wrong drugs, uttered “my body is on fire” during his execution.  

Since then, Richard Glossip’s execution was delayed four times, lastly, due to a drug protocol mix up, which became the focus of a multi county grand jury investigation.  That same “wrong drug” was used in the execution of Warner.

The problems with Oklahoma’s execution were the focus of a Multi-County Grand Jury investigation into Oklahoma’s execution process.

The 106-page grand jury report was released last month containing scathing critiques, citing “inexcusable failures” in the state’s execution process.

Also this year a first-ever, bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, co-chaired by former Gov. Brad Henry, was formed to conduct a “thorough review of the state’s capitol punishment system.” 

A full report is expected to be released in 2017.

“How can even voters decide what is cruel and unusual?” said Darla Shelden, member of OK-CADP. “We are not supposed to kill inhumanely or under so much secrecy. Everything the state does with executions is behind a wall.”

Becky VanPool, board member for the Oklahoma Coalition To Abolish the Death Penalty, leads the annual meeting of the organization on Thursday. (Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

Oklahoma could become the first state to enshrine the death penalty into its constitution, if the measure is approved by voters.

According to Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, no other state has ever attempted to exempt the death penalty from the requirement of complying with the constitution.

“The Oklahoma ballot question does not simply say that the state will have a death penalty, it says that the state courts are prohibited from determining that the manner that the death penalty is carried out is unconstitutional,” Dunham said.

“It says that the state courts cannot rule that the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, which on its face means that the courts cannot consider whether the administration of the death penalty violates either the state or federal constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment.”

According to Dunham, the law also says that the death penalty shall not be deemed to violate any other provision of Oklahoma’s state constitution, which means that no matter how discriminatorily or arbitrarily the punishment is applied, the courts cannot say that it violates any provision of the state constitution. 

“This referendum is not to say that the death penalty is part of state constitutional law; for that, it would need only to say that the penalty is authorized as a punishment,” said Dunham. “The referendum is to ensure that the administration of the death penalty shall not be regulated by the law. There is no other state that, to my knowledge, has ever tried to codify in its constitution that the death penalty is above the law.”

Johnson added that the referendum would also cost the taxpayers in terms of legal battles.

“This referendum is deeply flawed and does nothing to alter Oklahoma’s ability to carry out executions, but could open up the state to further costly legal challenges paid for by taxpayers, said Johnson. “Our goal is to educate citizens about this expensive governmental overreach, and to urge them to vote ‘No’to SQ 776”.

Meanwhile lethal injection debacles continue nationwide as states struggle to find drugs and carry out executions in secrecy. And now Pfizer, the last remaining, FDA-approved supplier of lethal injection drugs, says they “no longer want to be in the execution business.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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