Benjamin Cole spoke for two minutes Thursday before being executed, giving witnesses an “at times incoherent” and “rambling” prayer in which he urged people keep their “eyes peeled for Jesus.”
Cole’s prayer began at 10:04 a.m. According to media witnesses, a slightly later-than-usual start. Prison administrators blamed Cole’s wheelchair for the delay. At 10:06 a.m., the lethal injection began. Cole was pronounced dead at 10:22 a.m.
Sean Murphy, an Associated Press reporter who has witnessed more than a dozen executions, said Cole said he “forgave” everyone he had hurt during a rambling 2-minute speech in which he also declared that Jesus was his “personal lord and savior.”
“Choose Jesus while you still can,” Cole reportedly said.
Justin Farris, Chief of Operations at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said Cole’s execution was “uneventful” and “without complication.”
Cole, 57, was sentenced to death in 2004 for the murder of his 9-month old daughter Brianna on Dec. 20, 2002.
Prosecutors said Cole attacked Brianna after her cries interrupted his video game. Cole snapped Brianna’s spine, severing her abdominal aorta. She died later that day.
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted in September to reject Cole’s request for clemency. It was the second time Cole was denied clemency — the board also ruled against him by a 3-2 vote in 2015.
A Pittsburg County judge earlier this month denied Cole’s attorneys’ request for a trial on whether he was mentally competent for execution. Wheelchair bound, Cole appeared in court that day, but did not speak and spent the hearing slumped over at the waist.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Cole’s attorneys’ request for a stay of execution on Thursday, as did the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had also denied a separate appeal on Wednesday.
Brianna Cole was too young to truly know her family members, prosecutors said at a clemency hearing earlier this year, but was a “precious cutie pie” who never got to celebrate her first birthday or Christmas.
Bryan Young, Brianna’s uncle, and Donna Daniel, Brianna’s aunt, spoke to reporters following the execution, saying they wished they hadn’t had to wait 20 years to see Cole executed.
“We should not have to wait 20 years for a 9-month old baby to get justice,” Daniel told reporters.
They both said they “would appreciate” if media reports would focus more on victims and less on perpetrators. Asked if they would have preferred Cole to receive life without parole instead of a death sentence, which kicked off 20 years of appeals, both Young and Daniel said no.
“We think it’s worth it,” Daniel said.
Cole’s mental health has long been a source of debate. Attorneys at Cole’s original trial argued that he was not competent to stand trial. His most recent attorneys said his mental health had only deteriorated since his imprisonment. At the hearing earlier this month, one attorney noted that prison detention officers recently removed more than 140 uneaten trays of food from Cole’s cell. His attorneys said maggot-infested leftovers were often removed from Cole’s cell, and that Cole spent most days in a near-catatonic state in his cell.
During the hearing, Oklahoma State Penitentiary Warden Jim Farris testified that Cole was at times more coherent than he appeared in court that day. One psychologist diagnosed Cole as schizophrenic while in prison, though another court-ordered psychologist said Cole appeared competent. That psychologist, Dr. Scott Orth, said he did not believe Cole was schizophrenic and deemed him competent for execution, a bar that only indicates a person understands they are about to be put to death for an action they committed.
Tom Hird, one of Cole’s attorneys, issued a statement on Thursday after the execution, criticizing Oklahoma for denying Cole a competency hearing and for executing a “mentally ill, traumatized man.”
“It is unconscionable that the State denied Ben a competency trial,” Hird wrote. “Ben lacked a rational understanding of why Oklahoma took his life today. As Oklahoma proceeds with its relentless march to execute one mentally ill, traumatized man after another, we should pause to ask whether this is really who we are, and who we want to be.”
Cole was originally set for execution in 2015, but was granted a reprieve when former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt asked for a stay for Cole and two others, saying he “lacked confidence” the state’s department of corrections could legally carry out an execution.
Oklahoma has scheduled 23 executions between now and December 2024. The state did not execute any inmates for more than six and a half years following a series of mishaps that resulted in a lengthy moratorium on the death penalty between 2015 and 2021.
The state resumed executions in late 2021 after a group of death row inmates lost their legal challenge over the state’s lethal injection method.
Oklahoma executions since 2021
Oct. 28, 2021: John Marion Grant
Dec. 9, 2021: Bigler Jobe Stouffer II
Jan. 27: Donald Anthony Grant
Feb. 17: Gilbert Postelle
Aug. 25: James Allen Coddington
Oct. 20: Benjamin Cole
Executions set for this year
Nov. 17: Richard Fairchild Fairchild, convicted in 1996 for killing Adam Broomhall.
Dec. 8: Richard Glossip, convicted twice for paying another man to kill Barry Van Treese in 1997. Glossip’s first conviction in 1998 was later overturned. He was convicted again and sentenced to death in 2004.
Dec. 15: John Hanson, convicted in 1999 of killing Mary Bowles.