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Oklahoma Republican lawmakers call for moratorium on capital punishment as state picks up pace of executions

The push comes after a new poll that found an overwhelming majority of Oklahomans support pausing executions as questions mount about the innocence of death row inmates.

A death chamber in Texas
A death chamber in Texas. (Getty Images)

Three Republican lawmakers and anti-abortion advocates in Oklahoma on Wednesday called for a moratorium on the death penalty there at a time when the state has been increasing the pace of executions.

“I believe four years ago most people in the House of Representatives believed that it was not possible to have someone innocent on death row,” state Rep. Kevin McDugle, one of the GOP officials advocating for a moratorium on capital punishment, told Yahoo News. “With today’s justice system, it is very possible, and we have no mechanism currently for someone who is innocent to be given another look.”

The speakers at a press conference on Wednesday cited the findings of a new survey commissioned by Oklahoma Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty to bolster their case for a moratorium. The poll, which was released Wednesday afternoon, surveyed 500 registered voters by phone and online across the state last month. Among the questions asked was, “If the governor or attorney general were to temporarily pause executions to ensure that the process was fair and just, and does not result in the execution of innocent people, would you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose this decision?”

In response, 78% percent of respondents said they supported a temporary pause, with 45.4% strongly supportive and 32.2% somewhat supportive of doing so. Only 18% said they opposed a pause, with 11.8% strongly opposed and 6% somewhat opposed. Just 4.6% of those surveyed said they were undecided on the question.

State Rep. Kevin McDugle with members of Oklahoma Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty
State Rep. Kevin McDugle with members of Oklahoma Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. (Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman via AP)

When asked “Would you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole?,” 51% of those surveyed said they supported doing so, with 28.6% strongly supportive and 22% somewhat supportive. Forty-four percent said they were opposed to doing so, with 34.6% strongly opposed and 9.2% somewhat opposed.

At the press conference, McDugle said that while he supports the death penalty, he has serious reservations about its current implementation, adding that he believes Richard Glossip, the next Oklahoma death row inmate scheduled to die, on May 18, is not guilty of the 1997 murder of Glossip’s former boss, Barry Van Treese.

“I could not stand to see an innocent man put to death in Oklahoma, and I happen to know that Oklahomans don’t want to put an innocent man to death in Oklahoma either,” McDugle said, adding that more of his Republican colleagues have signaled support for pausing executions.

Demetrius Minor, national manager of Oklahoma Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said Wednesday that the group’s survey reveals that when Oklahoma voters have more options than simply yes or no to the death penalty, the favorability for it goes down.

“I believe these results say clearly, confidently and concisely that it is time for the state of Oklahoma to put into place a moratorium for the use of the death penalty,” Minor said, standing alongside former chairman of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Adam Luck and the Rev. John-Mark Hart. “It is an extreme use of state power deeply at odds with our limited government beliefs, and it doesn’t align with consistent life ethics.”

Richard Glossip
Death row inmate Richard Glossip, who is scheduled to die on May 18. (Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP)

Advocates of a moratorium say Oklahomans have shifted their views on capital punishment. In 2016, a state ballot question about whether the death penalty should be codified in the Oklahoma Constitution received 65% of the vote.

In 2021, Republican state Rep. Jim Olsen dismissed the idea of pausing executions, suggesting that doing so would lead to even more heinous crimes.

“I think it gives us a more permissive climate to commit murder,” Olsen told Public Radio Tulsa.

That same year, GOP state Rep. Chris Kannady told NonDoc, an independent media organization based in Oklahoma, that he believes the death penalty is appropriate for certain crimes.

“It’s a finality piece for crimes that are so heinous that the death penalty is deserved,” he said.

Oklahoma has executed 120 inmates since the death penalty was reinstated there in 1976, according to figures from the Death Penalty Information Center, more than any other state per capita over that span of time. Ten people sentenced to death have been exonerated.

The Oklahoma State Penitentiary
The entrance to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. (Shepard Sherbell/Corbis Saba/Corbis via Getty Images)

This most recent pivot for some Oklahoma elected officials comes on the heels of a historic slate of more than two dozen executions put on the calendar last year.

In August, the state pushed ahead with a plan to execute 25 people (58% of its current death row population) over a 29-month period. Included in that group are inmates who are mentally ill and others who have maintained their innocence. Four inmates have been put to death in the last six months, and four more are scheduled to be executed this year.

Critics of the uptick in the number of executions being carried out in the state say it raises serious moral and ethical questions.

“I think that when a state rushes to execute a large number of people, what it’s doing is something very different than pursuing truth,” Tracy Hresko Pearl, a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, told Yahoo News in August. “It’s pursuing punishment above all else. And I think that should be incredibly disturbing for all Americans.”

Twenty-three states in the U.S. have banned the death penalty, 24 still permit the practice and three others have suspended it, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Since 1915, Oklahoma has executed a total of 200 men and three women, according to state records. According to the 2019 annual report by the National Registry of Exonerations, between 2% and 10% of all individuals in U.S. prisons are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted, a statistic that many legal experts say makes capital punishment indefensible.

Maria Kolar, an assistant professor of law at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, said she has challenged the motives behind executions for years and says she has never received adequate answers.

“In an era when executions are at a new low nationwide for the modern era — for so many reasons — it seems reasonable to ask whether Oklahoma really wants to lead the nation when it comes to executions,” Kolar told Yahoo News.

Anti-death-penalty activists protest outside the Supreme Court, July 1, 2008
Anti-death-penalty activists protest outside the Supreme Court in 2008. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Brett Farley, state coordinator for Oklahoma Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said the findings of the new poll show that the belief that Oklahomans overwhelmingly support capital punishment is “a myth.”

“Most folks grow up [pro-death-penalty] in this culture,” Farley said, adding that views on capital punishment also shift when costs are brought into the conversation. An execution in Oklahoma costs the state, on average, between $2 million and $5 million, due to legal appeals. “No matter how you look at it, whether it’s from a fiscal angle, from a moral angle or from a justice angle — it just doesn’t add up.”

Kolar was a member of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, which reviewed numerous aspects of the death penalty in the state and released a report on the topic in April 2017. The almost 300-page report, co-authored by former Democratic Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry and former U.S. Magistrate Judge Andy Lester, a Republican, called on state officials to halt executions in the state temporarily and made 46 recommendations for reforming how capital punishment is carried out there. The report addressed the need for better training and procedures aimed at preventing wrongful capital convictions.

A death chamber in Huntsville, Texas
A death chamber in Huntsville, Texas, circa 1997. (Getty Images)

Six years later, with executions resuming at a rapid rate, virtually all the report’s recommendations have been ignored.

“The death penalty is such a serious, irreversible punishment that we need to be certain that a conviction or punishment is correct in a capital case,” Lester told Yahoo News. “What we learned when we did our study was that there are serious shortcomings in the way capital cases are handled ... that seriously call into question the convictions.”

Lester, who served on President Ronald Reagan’s transition team, admits that he’s not eager to argue for or against the penalty, but he says, “If we are going to have it, we need to do it right.”

“We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our state, we owe it to the country,” he said.

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Cover thumbnail photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images