A bill filed this week by Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, would create a “Conviction Integrity Unit” that could review cases of “any inmate who has received a sentence of death” in Oklahoma.
The unit would fall under the state’s Pardon and Parole Board, and the bill comes less than a year after Attorney General Mike Hunter ruled the board could review commutation requests filed by inmates on Oklahoma’s Death Row.
The unit would be authorized to review any death penalty conviction as long as the inmate presented “a plausible” claim of actual innocence supported by information or evidence not previously presented and is capable of being “investigated and resolved.”
The unit could also launch an investigation into whether an inmate was “convinced of an offense that he or she did not commit,” McDugle’s bill states. It would also be required that “no pending litigation” remains related to the inmate’s conviction.
Tom Bates, the executive director of the Pardon and Parole Board, declined to comment on Thursday. Hunter, through a spokesman, said he would not comment on pending legislation.
McDugle could not be reached for comment. Last September he wrote an opinion piece where he voiced support for the death penalty as a sentencing option, but also highlighted some of his concerns with its application in Oklahoma.
“If we can not guarantee accuracy,” McDugle wrote, “the executions should wait.”
The following month he hosted an interim study at the state Capitol on the death penalty.
McDugle’s bill was filed in the wake of a shift both nationally and locally in death penalty proceedings. A Gallup poll last November showed support for the death penalty had further eroded in 2020. Only 55 percent of Americans polled said they supported the death penalty, the lowest number in nearly 50 years.
That flagging support did not stop former President Donald Trump’s administration from carrying out an unprecedented number of executions of federal inmates. On Jan. 15, months after Trump had lost his re-election bid and just five days before President Joe Biden was inaugurated, the Trump administration executed its 13th federal inmate in six months.
Biden, Trump’s successor, campaigned on an end to federal executions.
Last June, the Pardon and Parole Board asked Hunter for clarification on the legality of holding two-stage commutation hearings for death row inmates. Later that month, Hunter wrote a letter to the board saying that former state Attorney General Scott Pruitt had already settled the matter in 2012 and that death row inmates were indeed eligible for case review.
On the same day that Hunter sent that letter, The Frontier reported that Allen McCall, a Pardon and Parole Board member, had threatened former Executive Director Steven Bickley by saying he would make allegations of unspecified criminal activity against him unless Bickley made efforts to keep death row inmates from seeking commutation hearings.
Bickley took a leave of absence following that threat and later resigned from the Pardon and Parole Board. McCall remains on the Pardon and Parole Board.
It’s unclear if additional funding would be required to help pay for the unit. McDugle’s bill would require the Pardon and Parole Board to hire and pay for an attorney as well as an investigator, who would be trained by Oklahoma’s Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training. Neither the attorney nor the investigator could be a current employee of the Attorney General’s Office or any state district attorney, the bill states.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections records show 47 inmates are on death row, including 46 men and one woman. More than six years have passed since the last execution, where convicted child killer Charles Warner, 47, was executed with the wrong drug.
His execution came following the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014, and preceded multiple failed attempts to execute Richard Glossip, who remains on death row. Oklahoma announced in 2018 it would switch from lethal injection as its preferred execution method because it was both unpopular and because it had become so difficult to obtain the drugs.
But last year state officials made a surprise announcement that they had located a supply of the drugs and could resume lethal injection executions as soon as courts would allow. Though Oklahoma updated its death penalty protocol early last year, the death penalty has been on a court-ordered hiatus since October 2015, when the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals imposed an indefinite stay on all executions.