OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — After a six-year moratorium on the death penalty because of a series of botched lethal injections, Oklahoma officials announced they would execute seven men in quick succession, leading some death penalty supporters to believe the state's executions would resume posthaste.
But what was once one of the nation’s busiest death chambers has not resumed as some had hoped after Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted the death sentence of Julius Jones on Thursday.
The commutation came just weeks after criticism and questions about the state's three-drug execution protocol were renewed following the Oct. 28 execution of John Marion Grant, who convulsed and vomited as he received midazolam, the first of the three drugs.
Earlier this week, members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on Wednesday voted 3-2 to recommend clemency for death row inmate Bigler Stouffer II — not because of doubt over his guilt, but over concerns about the state’s execution methods.
“This is probably the end of the death penalty in the state of Oklahoma,” Republican state Rep. Jim Olsen, a death penalty supporter, said Friday.
The following day, Stitt commuted Jones' death sentence to life without parole, just hours before his scheduled execution.
Olsen told The Associated Press that he is disappointed with Stitt's decision and had hoped executions would resume in the state.
“I was hopeful that it was, yes, and I say that for my desire for the state, for the good of the law abiding people of the state of Oklahoma,” Olsen said.
“I think it gives us a more permissive climate to commit murder,” Olsen said, while refusing to criticize Stitt. “It’s obviously a very difficult position to be in, I don’t think anyone would say ’I wish I was the governor and had to decide this,'” Olsen said.
Olsen said Jones was convicted of the “brutal” murder of businessman Paul Howell in front of Howell's young daughters and his sister.
“If that won't merit the death penalty, how much more egregious can you get?" Olsen said, noting that the state Pardon and Parole Board had recommended commutation of Jones' sentence prior to recommending commutation for Stouffer.
Stitt has not commented on the reason why he agreed to commute Jones' death sentence or on the board's recommendation to commute Stouffer's sentence.
“He (Stitt) supports the death penalty, but he considers (commutations) on a case-by-case basis," said Stitt spokesperson Carly Atchison. “The conditions of (Jones') commutation, that he will never be eligible for pardon or parole,” was key to Stitt's decision, Atchison said.
An attorney for Jones did not immediately return a phone call for comment on any appeals that might be filed.
Don Heath, chairman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Jones' options appear to be limited.
“I think he has exhausted his appeals. Only if new evidence comes forward can he appeal," Heath said. "I don’t think you can appeal a mercy decision, a clemency decision.”
Heath said he believes that if any clemency recommendation request were to be denied, it would have been Stouffer's, but he questions whether the death penalty has effectively ended in the state.
“I hope that’s the case,“ Heath said. "I haven’t seen any indication from Gov. Stitt that this is the case” because of Stitt's support of the death penalty, he said.
Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s lethal injection protocols is set for trial in February. The lawsuit argues that the three-drug method risks causing unconstitutional pain and suffering.
Heath said Stitt “needs to stay all executions” until after the trial.
Ken Miller, The Associated Press