Kwame Ajamu spent 27 years in an Ohio prison for a murder he didn’t commit. On Wednesday, he and a few dozen others rallied outside the Tulsa County Courthouse in opposition of Oklahoma State Question 776.
If passed, SQ776 would codify the death penalty in Oklahoma’s Constitution, something opponents have argued is both unnecessary and potentially expensive should the measure be passed then later challenged.
“The death penalty is not at risk,” Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, said Wednesday following the rally. “I think that some people might think that if this doesn’t pass, the death penalty might be taken away in Oklahoma, and that’s not true.”
SQ776 would assert in the state constitution that all methods of execution not already outlawed by the United States Constitution would be ruled valid in Oklahoma. And if a method of execution was set to be imposed, then later ruled by a higher court to be invalid, that ruling would not remove the death penalty. Instead, the subject would just be executed by different, lawful means.
Also, the ballot title states the death penalty itself could not “be deemed to be or constitute the infliction of cruel or unusual punishment.”
Goodwin was one of a handful of speakers at Wednesday’s rally, which also included Rob Night, Chief Public Defender for Tulsa County, Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, Rex Berry, a democratic candidate for Tulsa County Sheriff, and Marc Hyden, the national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty.
“The proposal is a distraction,” Hyden said. “A political measure made to look tough on crime while in the end being meaningless.”
The bill’s chief sponsor, Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, said in a press release last year that SQ776 would “ensure that we can effectively enforce the death penalty.”
“Oklahomans strongly support the death penalty, and it is critical that we protect our ability to enforce it.”
However, that support may growing more and more dim. While a 2014 Soonerpoll found that about 74 percent of those polled either “strongly or somewhat favored” the death penalty, a more recent survey showed that more than 50 percent of Oklahomans would give up the death penalty in favor of replacing it with mandatory life-without-parole sentences, and other restrictions, like lifetime restitution to victims’ families.
Those possibly-changing attitudes come at a time where the death penalty has faced unprecedented scrutiny in Oklahoma.
In 2014, the state bungled Clayton Lockett’s execution, leaving him writhing on the gurney as they drew the shades down on media witnesses. Last year the state executed Charles Warner, who had previously been set to be executed the same night as Lockett.
Then last May came a bombshell: A state multi-county grand jury issued a scathing report, saying that “paranoia” clouded the judgment of top Department of Corrections officials when it came to executing Charles Warner last year and in attempting to execute Richard Glossip months later.
Prison officials ordered lethal drugs by phone without prescriptions, received them in unmarked, sealed cardboard boxes and failed to verify the contents. They paid large amounts of cash to execution team members and ignored state purchasing laws.
DOC officials also refused to tell their own employee — tasked with reviewing how the agency carried out executions — crucial details including the pharmacist’s name. As a result, the review didn’t catch a serious lapse: DOC received the wrong lethal drug when it executed Warner and when it planned to execute Glossip.
Glossip’s execution was ultimately stayed, as have been all executions, though officials have promised to eventually resume the process once new protocols are put in place, likely sometime in 2017.
“We’ve had a number of botched executions,” Goodwin said. “We’ve got a commission right now studying that saying ‘what is the best way forward?’ Their findings aren’t due until 2017, so why are we rushing into this? Why are we … enshrining this into our constitution?”