The death penalty is a "just form of punishment," Oklahoma residents say

Connie Johnson, center, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, campaigns against the death penalty in an Oklahoma City neighborhood on Oct. 16, 2016. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr. Connie Johnson, center, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, campaigns against the death penalty in an Oklahoma City neighborhood on Oct. 16, 2016. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.  

Most Oklahomans believe the devil is real.

State Rep. Mike Ritze thinks that’s why they overwhelmingly support capital punishment, despite highly publicized problems with lethal-injection drugs that prompted state officials to put a temporary moratorium on executions in 2015.

“Because of our faith-based population, we believe there is evil in the world,” said Ritze, a Southern Baptist deacon who co-authored a pro-death-penalty measure supported by 66 percent of voters in the November general election.

“We believe in a devil, and we believe in a God,” the Republican lawmaker said. “As a result, I think Oklahomans are very supportive of the death penalty.”

But last week—just as neighboring Arkansas finished executing four death-row inmates in eight days before one of its lethal-injection drugs expired — the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission recommended that the moratorium be extended.

The commission cited “the volume and the seriousness of the flaws” in the state’s capital punishment system. The bipartisan group of Oklahoma leaders, organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Constitution Project, made 46 recommendations to revamp the process.

“Many of the findings of the commission’s year-long investigation were disturbing and led commission members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death,” according to the in-depth report.

In some cases, “Oklahoma prosecutors have invoked inflammatory language to minimize the jurors’ sense of responsibility in capital cases, such as invoking God and the Bible in arguing for the death penalty,” according to a discovery cited on Page 81 of the 272-page document.

The group noted that Oklahoma—with 112 death sentences carried out since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976—boasts the nation’s highest per-capita execution rate.

However, the state’s last execution, in January 2015, made international headlines when a newspaper revealed nine months later that the wrong drugs were used to put Charles Frederick Warner to death.

“My body is on fire,” Warner said as the drugs flowed, prompting claims of “cruel and unusual punishment” from death penalty opponents.

The execution of Warner, who killed a baby in 1997, followed a botched April 2014 lethal injection in which Clayton Darrell Lockett writhed and moaned on the gurney after he’d been declared unconscious.

Connie Johnson, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the commission’s findings have “opened up all kinds of possibilities that can lead to justice.”

Johnson, a former Democratic state senator, is a longtime member of the Church of the Living God in Oklahoma City and the sister of a murder victim. She said she forgave the man who killed her brother, just as she believes Jesus died so that her own sins could be forgiven.

“As an abolitionist, I can speak from a position of been there, done that,” Johnson said. “So when people say, ‘You would feel differently if someone killed your loved one,’ I can say, ‘Well, I did have a loved one killed, and the death penalty isn’t the right way.’”

Former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat whose administration presided over 40 executions from 2003 to 2011, served as one of three co-chairs for the 11-person death penalty review commission.

Henry, who taught Sunday school at his hometown Baptist church before moving into the governor’s mansion, described the drug snafus that gave rise to the investigation as manifestations of a larger problem.

“There are systemic flaws throughout the entire death penalty process, beginning with interrogations, beginning with eyewitness identifications, beginning with various forensic techniques that have been used that have been debunked as valid science,” Henry told reporters.

“There were members of this commission that would advocate for the abolition of the death penalty,” the former governor added. “There were members of this commission that were staunch defenders of the death penalty. But what we all agreed on is, if you’re going to have the death penalty, it ought to be done right.”

Gov. Mary Fallin, the two-term Republican who succeeded Henry, and her general counsel’s office will review the private commission’s report, Fallin’s press secretary Michael McNutt said this week.

Nationally, support for the death penalty has hit its lowest level in four decades, with 49 percent of Americans favoring it and 42 percent opposing it, according to the Pew Research Center. Two-thirds of U.S. states have paused executions or stopped them altogether, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

But in Oklahoma—where 4 out of 5 residents characterize themselves as “very religious” or “moderately religious,” according to Gallup polling—most residents view the death penalty as a just form of punishment.

“Just because there have been mistakes made in the process doesn’t mean there’s a mistake in the policy or the principle,” said Bill Hulse, senior pastor of Putnam City Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.

“Consequences are necessary,” said Hulse, whose Southern Baptist congregation averages 700 people in attendance on Sundays. “I know prison may not be the best place to be, but for some people, that isn’t much of a consequence. They’re going to get cable TV, medical care and three squares a day.”

“I know prison may not be the best place to be, but for some people, that isn’t much of a consequence."

But religious leaders who oppose capital punishment voiced hope the commission’s report will cause the majority of Oklahomans to reconsider their position.

“I’m hopeful our state will eventually rely on other available ways to administer just punishment without resorting to lethal measures,” said Paul S. Coakley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Oklahoma City. “We don’t end the cycle of violence by committing more violence.

“In all of these crimes, we lost a life, and the death penalty only serves to further devalue human dignity,” Coakley added. “Justice can never be achieved by killing a human being.”

Jon Middendorf, senior pastor of Oklahoma City’s First Church of the Nazarene, said he opposes abortion and the death penalty.

Middendorf, whose progressive evangelical congregation claims 1,300 members, predicts support for the death penalty will decline—even in Oklahoma—as younger Christians gain power.

“I think things are changing and will change,” he said, “because I think there is a frustration with an older, more fundamentalist, legalistic version of evangelicalism.”

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