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Group asks voters to ‘Think Twice Oklahoma’ on death penalty state question

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Anti-death penalty activists urge voters to "Think Twice" on SQ 776.
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- As gray skies opened up a deluge of rain, a coalition of groups stood in front of the Oklahoma Supreme Court and urged voters to “Think Twice” and vote no on State Question 776, which asks voters to amend to change the Oklahoma Constitution to allow for alternate methods of execution not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.

If passed, the new constitutional language would mean that capital punishment could not be construed as cruel or unusual punishment and that any change in the method of execution would not change the sentences of those awaiting death by any previous procedure.

The question, which Oklahoma citizens will vote on in November, would insert the death penalty into the Oklahoma State Constitution. Representatives of numerous groups spoke in order to highlight the attack by the legislature on the power of the Oklahoma Judiciary to interpret Oklahoma law with respect to capital punishment.

Members of the anti-776 campaign called Think Twice Oklahoma said the state question not only cripples the judicial arm of government, but would cost taxpayers an inordinate amount of money to defend challenges and to carry out executions.

“I think the conservative position is against the death penalty because it costs more than life, more than life without parole, it’s not representative of a limited government and it doesn’t produce any productive benefits,” said Marc Hyden, advocacy coordinator for the National Conservatives Concerned (About the Death Penalty) organization, who spoke at the press event.

“Beyond that, I believe the conservative position would be against this state question because we believe the founding fathers had the foresight to institute checks and balances, and this aims to subvert those checks and balances. There should be three branches of government.”

Recent polls also indicate that Oklahomans are becoming wary of capital punishment with more than 53 percent of citizens favored looking twice at the death penalty, or using the death penalty only for the worst of the worst.

“Any time you are circumventing the judiciary, it’s very concerning,” said Hyden. “That’s exactly what this is doing.”

The state question continues a conversation into Oklahoma’s capital punishment record. In 1998, Oklahoma’s death row population was 136, but today, 49 offenders sit on death row. However, after the highly-publicized troubled execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett in April 2014, the state has been under fire for not being able to put a person to death in a humane or appropriate way

The latest mishaps of Oklahoma’s death row system occurred when the wrong drug combination halted the execution of Richard Glossip and an investigation uncovered that Charles Warner was executed using the same wrong drug combination in January 2015.

“These are not questions about justice, but questions about politics,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. “We have a legislature that has for the last several years been unable to come up with a budget. Rural schools are closing to four days a week, we have rural hospitals that are closing, we have infrastructure that is crumbling around us… And yet, our legislators continue to ask us to trust them with the most awesome authority any government in the history of governments has ever exercised, and that’s the power to kill its own people.

“If we cannot trust our state government to fund our schools, our hospitals, fund our infrastructure, how in the world can we continue to trust them to strap someone down on a table, put a needle in their arm and fill it full of poison until they’re dead. We cannot continue to trust them to do that.”

Oklahoma currently has a moratorium on executions while protocol issues are reviewed concerning the lethal injection protocol. Attorney General Scott Pruitt has said no executions would take place until new protocols were approved, but states throughout the nation have had problems procuring the necessary drugs due to embargoes begun by European pharmaceutical companies, which have been taken up by U.S. firms

State Question 776 was sponsored by six Republican legislators in response to changing protocols. In 2016, the legislature approved the use of nitrogen gas for executions, but the state can still allow firing squad or electric chair.

For opponents, removing the language of “cruel and unusual” from law opens up serious concerns.

Marven Goodman, chair of the Oklahoma Republican Liberty Caucus, said his party is pro-life, meaning they support protecting life from conception to death.

“Our state should never enshrine law into the constitution,” said Goodman. “Anytime there is a question to put a bridle on the state legislature, which laws they can pass or not pass, then that’s bypassing a constitutional republic. Laws should be able to be changed, but bringing this law into the constitution bypasses the checks and balances.”

As part of the Think Twice Oklahoma campaign, others speakers also urged voters to defeat the state question, including Tina Kelly, Oklahoma Libertarian Party chair; Connie Johnson, chair of Say NO to SQ 776 Committee and vice chair of Oklahoma Democratic Party; and other representatives of Think Twice Oklahoma endorsing organizations, including the ACLU, NAACP, Oklahoma Conference of Churches, Catholic Charities, Witness to Innocence and many others.

Former State Sen. Connie Johnson is chair of the Say No to SQ 776 Committee. (Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report)

“This is the first time the Oklahoma Conference of Churches has actually taken a stand against a state question,” said William Tabbernee, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches.

“SQ776 is not only about the death penalty as a whole, but about changing the constitution in order to tie the hands of future legislators. We believe what this law tries to do is say any method of execution is alright, even though we have bungled the way we bungled in the past. They can do death penalty by gas chamber or use the electric chair or use the guillotine.”

The state question would add Section 9A to Article II, stating: “All statutes of this state requiring, authorizing, imposing or relating to the death penalty are in full force and effect, subject to legislative amendment or repeal by statute, initiative or referendum. Any method of execution shall be allowed, unless prohibited by the United States Constitution. Methods of execution may be designated by the Legislature. A sentence of death shall not be reduced on the basis that a method of execution is invalid.

In any case in which an execution method is declared invalid, the death sentence shall remain in force until the sentence can be lawfully executed by any valid method. The death penalty provided for under such statutes shall not be deemed to be, or to constitute, the infliction of cruel or unusual punishments, nor shall such punishment be deemed to contravene any other provision of this Constitution.”

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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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