Sister Helen Prejean on Oklahoma’s unprecedented rush to execute 25 people
In Oklahoma, 25 death row inmates have been placed in an execution queue that extends from August 2022 through Christmas 2024. If the plan survives court challenges and public resistance, 58 percent of the people on Oklahoma’s death row, “including multiple prisoners with severe mental illness, brain damage, and claims of innocence,” will be put to death, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The 29-month schedule of executions was approved by an appeals court on July 1.
“This rush to execute would be reckless in any state, but Oklahoma in particular has a horrendous track record for problematic executions,” said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, the executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, an anti-death-penalty advocacy group affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy noted recent examples: the 2021 lethal injection of John Grant, “who convulsed and vomited repeatedly before dying”; the 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett, “who took more than 40 minutes to die”; and the 2015 execution of Charles Warner, “in which the wrong drug was used.”
“This rush to execute would be reckless in any state, but Oklahoma in particular has a horrendous track record for problematic executions.”
The state’s poor handling of executions led to a court challenge from 28 death row prisoners that was turned back by a federal judge on June 6. Four days later Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor filed an application for rescheduling the executions for all inmates who had exhausted their appeals.
Explaining the unprecedented pace he proposed to the court, he wrote, “For the sake of the victims’ families—many of whom have waited for decades—as many executions as possible are set four weeks apart.”
A principal question: ‘Are we a culture that values life?’
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley was among local religious leaders who condemned the attorney general’s request. “Killing 25 human beings as punishment for killing—even if guilty—only perpetuates the cycle of violence and offers none of the mercy and opportunity for redemption Jesus asks of us,” he said. “We also can’t undo it if we’re wrong.”
Brett Farley, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, wonders how the state can proceed as if the “cruel and unusual” challenges to its execution cocktail have been resolved. He is confident more court challenges are forthcoming.
What he calls “the principal question in the matter” also remains to be heard out: “Are we really a state and a culture that values life?”
The state’s poor handling of executions led to a court challenge from 28 death row prisoners that was turned back by a federal judge on June 6.
“If we are,” Mr. Farley said, “then we need to question whether we’re going to be moving forward with this death penalty policy, especially in light of the fact that so many of these death sentences have been called into question.”
The proposed rush of executions unpleasantly reminded Sister Helen Prejean of the final days of the Trump administration, when Attorney General William P. Barr pushed through 13 executions in just six months—the first federally mandated executions in 17 years. Sister Helen is a longtime campaigner against the death penalty and the author of Dead Man Walking, The Death of Innocents and River of Fire.
She remembered Lisa Montgomery, “one of the last people that Trump killed,” hearing her date of execution set for Jan. 13, 2022.
“She kind of wistfully looked away and just said, ‘Eight days,’” Sister Helen said. Ms. Montgomery had counted off the days that stood between her execution and President Joseph Biden’s inauguration. “She knew that Biden was going to be president…and that he would not let her be killed.” Sister Helen said. “But she was under the aegis of Trump, and she was going to lose her life.”
Still arbitrary, still capricious
The execution spree at the end of President Trump’s term and the proposed spectacle of executions in Oklahoma, Sister Helen argued, demonstrate the capriciousness of the capital punishment regime in the United States. It was that arbitrariness that was the rationale for the Supreme Court’s decision to suspend the death penalty in its Furman v. Georgia decision in 1972.
More evidence of contemporary inconsistency can be found in both the number and location of recent executions and death row sentences. A federal moratorium on executions has been restored by the Biden administration, and according to D.P.I.C., executions and new capital sentences around the country have diminished to a trickle.
The proposed rush of executions unpleasantly reminded Sister Helen Prejean of the final days of the Trump administration, when Attorney General William P. Barr pushed through 13 executions in just six months.
Just 11 people were executed in 2021. “More than two-thirds of U.S. states—36 out of 50—have either abolished the death penalty or have not carried out an execution in at least 10 years,” D.P.I.C. reports. Executions in the United States are increasingly conducted in just a handful of states—Texas and Oklahoma among them.
To Sister Helen, that suggests a status quo on capital punishment that has reverted to the arbitrariness that the Supreme Court has objected to. Guidelines established by the court in Gregg v. Georgia provided a rationale to restore the death penalty just four years after Furman, but they included broad discretionary powers to prosecutors to seek death or not. That individual oversight “assures that it’s always going to be capricious,” Sister Helen said. “It’s in the hands of faulty, ignorant, politically driven individuals called D.A.s or prosecutors who make decisions to seek death.”
A flawed process?
Questions about dubious judgments and prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases have been raised across the country in challenges that led to the release of hundreds of prisoners from death row in recent years. Oklahoma has its own dodgy cases, activists against the death penalty say.
A growing awareness of the flaws and misconduct in death penalty prosecutions is provoking criticism of capital punishment from all sides of the political spectrum in Oklahoma, according to Mr. Farley. “Some elected Republicans are publicly questioning the death penalty in ways that we never would have imagined even five years ago,” he said. “We’re really coming to the precipice of publicly questioning whether we ought to be moving forward with this policy at all.”
Sister Helen has been especially involved with the effort to review the trial and sentencing of Richard Glossip, currently scheduled to be executed on Sept. 22 despite a widespread uproar over the circumstances of his conviction.
Mr. Glossip maintains his innocence in the 1997 murder-for-hire of Barry Van Treese. Justin Sneed, the man who killed Van Treese, received a plea deal in exchange for testimony that Mr. Glossip had paid him to commit the murder, but an independent investigation found that police manipulated that testimony. The inquiry also reported that a box of possibly exculpatory evidence was destroyed at the order of Oklahoma County prosecutors before Mr. Glossip’s second trial.
Questions about dubious judgments and prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases have been raised across the country in challenges that led to the release of hundreds of prisoners from death row in recent years.
Reaching out to Oklahoma Catholics, the state conference will “call attention to the problems that we’ve had historically in Oklahoma with the execution protocol,” Mr. Farley said. “But we’re using this also as a teaching opportunity to explain the Catholic position on the death penalty, which has been consistent over time, and that is one of mercy.
“If we believe that human life has inherent sanctity and value, then it’s either true or it’s not,” he said, not offered to some but denied to others. “We can’t compartmentalize our position on the sanctity of life.”
Sister Helen is pleased to note the objections to the death penalty in Oklahoma raised by the state’s Catholc bishops, especially Archbishop Coakley.
“Bishops making statements is very good,” Sister Helen said, but those statements need to be used to “wake up” Catholics who have been indifferent to the fate of people condemned to death row. Many, she said, need to be alerted to contemporary church teaching on capital punishment and criminal justice.
After recent revisions to the Catholic Catechism urged by Pope Francis, which describe the use of capital punishment as “inadmissable,” Sister Helen said the teaching of the church on the death penalty is in “clear alignment with the Gospel and also in alignment with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” protecting “the inalienable right to life of every human being and the inviolable dignity of the human person made in the image of God, who can never under any circumstances, be rendered completely senseless and deliberately killed.”
Of course, Sister Helen did not need the Supreme Court to tell her that the death penalty is wrong. She found reasons to believe that a long time ago in Scripture.
She objects especially to anyone who attempts to deploy a “John Wayne-Jesus” religious filter over the issue, the belief “that violence and using violence is the way to get things done and to claim this is God’s will for us.”
“The Gospel of Jesus is just the opposite of it,” she said. “The nonviolent Gospel of Jesus is all about making peace, having to deal with forgiveness and reconciliation with justice.”
And she has no patience for prosecutors who argue, as Mr. O’Connor did, that executions are a way for the families of victims to experience “closure” or justice after their loss.
“It’s got nothing to do with helping victims’ families,” Sister Helen said, “as if witnessing the state killing the person who killed your loved one, witnessing that violence, could ever heal people.”
The first of 25 executions in Oklahoma is scheduled to be held on Aug. 25. Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy said that Catholic Mobilizing Network is working closely with the state’s Catholic Conference, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa, along with secular anti-death-penalty groups, “to coordinate a strong, mobilized response against the state’s planned execution spree.”
She encourages Oklahoma Catholics to join C.M.N.’s mailing list to receive updates about impending executions and ways to take action, but she also has some advice for local campaigns they can start on their own. “Talk to your pastor or leaders in your parish or ministry,” she said, “to make them aware of this execution spree and lend your voice and energy to educate others about this affront to human dignity.”
With reporting from Patrick Cullinan, America Media summer intern.