OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma has had one of the busiest death chambers in the country for decades, executing more people per capita than any other state since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that death sentences could resume.
But after a botched lethal injection in 2014 and drug mix-ups in 2015 that led to one inmate being executed with the wrong drug and another just moments away from being strapped to a gurney before his lethal injection was halted, the state is facing a series of hurdles and long delays before it could resume capital punishment.
While other states have put moratoriums in place because of shortages of key drugs or growing opposition to the death penalty, Oklahoma's problems stem from the inability of prison officials to carry out the executions as planned.
In neighboring Arkansas, four men have been executed in recent days, part of an original plan to execute eight inmates over an 11-day period before the expiration date on that state's supply of midazolam, a sedative already linked to problematic executions in Ohio and Arizona. The drug's effectiveness has again been questioned following last week's execution in Arkansas of Kenneth Williams, who lurched and convulsed 20 times during a lethal injection that began with midazolam.
While Oklahoma voters staunchly support the ultimate punishment — more than two-thirds supported a pro-death penalty question on the ballot in November — it's not clear if executions will resume again in Oklahoma any time soon.
A detailed report released last week by a commission that studied Oklahoma's death penalty for more than a year unanimously recommended the state shouldn't start executing inmates again until dozens of changes are made to various parts of the death penalty process, from murder investigations to the actual death penalty procedures.
"While I do believe there are people who are so bad and so evil that they deserve the ultimate punishment, I think our process is broken, and until we fix it we shouldn't be executing people," said former Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, who co-chaired the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission and who oversaw dozens of executions during his two terms in office.
Henry voiced real concern over the possibility of an innocent person being put to death, noting that ten defendants have been freed from death row in Oklahoma over the last forty years.
One of those men — Ron Williamson — came within days of being executed before he and another man sentenced to life in prison for the 1982 killing of Debbie Carter were ultimately freed after DNA evidence pointed to another suspect.
One of the commission members, Christy Sheppard, is Carter's cousin and said the entire experience soured her and her family on the death penalty.
"We watched those two men, who we believed were responsible for her death, simply walk away, taking any truth that we had with them," Sheppard said.
While another suspect was eventually tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Sheppard said: "We had lost all faith in the criminal justice system, in addition to the agonizing guilt that two innocent men had suffered."
Despite the commission's misgivings and a scathing grand jury report last year on Oklahoma's bungled executions, Oklahoma's new Attorney General Mike Hunter said he "respectfully disagrees" with the commission's conclusion that the death penalty moratorium be extended. Hunter said last week he remains confident the state soon will be ready to resume carrying out the death penalty.
"We're going to get a handle on the execution process," Hunter said. "There's new management at the (Department of Corrections), and I'm confident they're going to come up with a new execution protocol and that we'll move forward after that."
The attorney general's office has said in court filings that it will not request any execution dates until at least 150 days — or about 5 months — after the new protocols are released. Meanwhile, 15 death row inmates in Oklahoma have exhausted all of their appeals and are awaiting execution dates to be set.
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