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Death penalty foes oppose change in execution method; want permanent moratorium

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Oklahoma Coalition Against the Death Penalty activists prior to the press conference Friday.
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Abolition considered 'only sensible' action, coalition spokesman says

OKLAHOMA CITY – Death penalty opponents criticized a multi-grand jury report that recommended a change in how inmates are killed and called for a permanent moratorium on executions.

The comments came during a Friday morning press conference at the state Capitol. The news conference was hosted by the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The grand jury report, issued late Thursday, recommended Oklahoma switch from lethal injection to nitrogen hypoxia, a form of the old gas chamber that was in used in many states until executions were ruled unconstitutional in 1966. Supporters of using nitrogen hypoxia claim it is more humane than the gas chamber and does not fall into the cruel and unusual category.

However, those who spoke at the news conference Friday claim Oklahoma death row inmates would be “human guinea pigs” since no other state uses that form of punishment.

“People say it is a quick and painless death, but it hasn’t been used in any other jurisdiction,” said Dan Heath, the coalition’s vice chairman. “There has not been enough public discussion about it.”

The grand jury made the recommendation because of the flaws in the current system and the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014. Witnesses said Lockett writhed in pain and suffered from a heart attack before he died because DOC personnel did not properly insert the IV into the inmate’s vein.

Heath said a change in execution methods would likely create legal challenges that could be debated in the courts for years.

Brady Henderson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said the grand jury’s suggestion follows a long line of previous changes to execution methods, ranging from stoning in Biblical times to more recent ways including firing squads, hangings, gas chamber, electric chair and now lethal injections.

Oklahoma lawmakers approved nitrogen hypoxia as the backup method of execution if lethal injection were ever ruled unconstitutional.

Henderson compared Department of Corrections officials to the Keystone cops, claiming no officials took responsibility for a mix-up in drugs during the Charles Warner execution. Prison officials used potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride as the third drug in the lethal cocktail mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court months earlier. The same drug mix-up occurred during the scheduled execution of Richard Glossip, but was caught minutes before the inmate was scheduled to die.

“We’re always trying to find better ways to kill someone,” Henderson said, again comparing prison officials to the Nazis who used the gas chamber and other methods to murder six million Jews during World War II. “We’re going to find a way to be successful at killing our citizens.”

Using sarcasm to make a point, Henderson said, “In the state of Oklahoma, killing is wrong unless we’re doing the killing and then it’s OK. It’s hypocritical.”

Rex Friend, an Oklahoma City and Quaker, said he grieves because people nationwide look to the so-called Oklahoma Standard as an example, “but this (execution scandal) is the exact opposite.”

Steve Mullins, who was chief legal counsel for Gov. Mary Fallin at the time of the drug mix-ups, acted outside the law when he wanted DOC to continue with Glossip’s execution although he knew it would involve the wrong drug, Friend said.

“We know what happens with absolute power,” he said, referencing Mullins’ knowledge that potassium acetate, not potassium chloride, had been used in Warner’s execution. “Oklahoma was on probation for wrongfully killing Clayton Lockett. The spotlight has been on us and we failed.”

Heath contends Oklahoma, facing a $1.3 billion revenue failure, could save money at the DOC if the death penalty were eliminated as a punishment. A nationwide halt to executions was in place from 1967 to 1990 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled capital punishment was cruel and unusual.

“We didn’t have a problem with public safety from 1967 to 1990,” he said.

Oklahoma executed 90 death row inmates from statehood until 1990. Since then, the state has killed 112 inmates with lethal injection, Heath said. Forty-nine inmates are currently on death row.

Glossip is the next inmate scheduled for execution, although his death date will be delayed at least five months after the final grand jury report. Other inmates whose appeals have been exhausted are Benjamin Cole, Richard Fairchild, John Grant and Jeremy Williams.

Glossip’s appellate attorney, Don Knight, said the grand jury report was clear that Oklahoma’s flawed system nearly “caused the execution of an innocent man.”

In a statement, Knight said he and co-counsel Mark Olive continue to seek new evidence that will exonerate Glossip.

“As we have said from the beginning, regardless of how one feels about the death penalty, we can all agree no one wants to execute an innocent man.”

Sister Helen Prejean, a staunch Glossip supporter, said the grand jury report verified Oklahoma’s execution protocol is “broken, broken, broken.”

“The grand jury findings show an unspeakable level of incompetence, complete indifference to the legal rights of the condemned and an absolute lack of respect for the human dignity of Oklahoma’s death row prisoners,” she said. “The report makes it glaringly clear that we can never trust our government with the power to take a fellow human being’s life.”

Coalition spokesman Adam Leathers said Oklahoma should not spend money to kill people.

“Abolition is the only sensible, moral and inexpensive thing to do,” he said.

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