Prior to botched execution, the public had lost interest in Oklahoma’s death penalty

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Anthony Rozelle Banks. Courtesy
In 2013 I was asked to cover the execution of Anthony Rozelle Banks, a Tulsa man who was sentenced to death for the 1999 murder of 25-year-old Sun I. “Kim” Travis.

Travis had been abducted from a parking lot at her apartment complex in June 1979. Her body was found in a trash pile miles away the next day. She had been raped and shot in the head.

Banks’ execution lacked much of the hoopla that’s followed since Lockett’s death went awry in 2014. Banks was from Tulsa and outside of the Associated Press reporter who attended, no Oklahoma City media deemed the event worthy of the two-hour drive to McAlester.

When my editors at the Tulsa World asked me to cover it, they did so solemnly and I understood why. It can be argued that witnessing an execution is the most serious act you can ask of a journalist.

So when I arrived at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester that day, the atmosphere surprised me. We gathered in a small room not far from the Warden’s bungalow, just inside the prison yard’s entrance gate. They fed us cookies and had vending machines on hand in case you needed a sandwich. They had specially engraved Department of Corrections napkins.

There was a nervous energy in the room but the mood was rather light. Then DOC spokespeople Jerry Massie and Terri Watkins, veterans of events like these, cracked jokes while we waited on a van to pick us up and take us to the execution building.

The rules at OSP are strict — at one point while waiting on the van, I had stepped outside to take a phone call and strayed too far from our little hut. Massie chastised me and chased me back inside.

To witness an execution, you have to leave your own gear behind. No watches, no phones, no personal pads or pens. Once you pass through security, prison staff gives you a pencil and paper and that’s it. It’s up to you to document what goes on inside.

On the van ride over one of the other reporters and I began to worry. One of our responsibilities was to write down all the statements Banks would make before dying. What if we got it wrong? What if we wrote down different notes and disagreed on what he said?

So we were relieved when we later compared our notes — they matched. Banks had said “This is justified” and since he had become a reformed Jehova’s Witness in prison, talked about heavenly reunions. He talked briefly to then Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz, who was also there to witness the execution.

Once the drugs started pumping he gasped, grimaced, and said “oh my God.” Then he was still. They called the time of death, pulled down the curtains and we left.

Despite our worry about getting his final words right, it didn’t really matter. Banks was the fourth person Oklahoma executed in 2013, and the state would execute two more before the year ended. Oklahoma led the nation in per-capita executions and they went off like clockwork.

Massie told us that no family members for either Banks or Travis had attended the execution. He also told us before we entered the witness room that death row inmates would often bang on the walls of their cells as someone was being led to the death chamber as a sign of respect for the soon-to-be executed. But it was silent as Banks entered the room and it was silent as we left it.

Related reading

Unable to purchase execution equipment, Oklahoma poised to build the device itself

Chaotic night at Lockett execution kickstarted five years of death penalty turmoil

Death penalty timeline
2014
April 29 – Clayton Darrell Lockett, 38, is executed. The execution was halted after a supposedly unconscious Lockett began speaking and writhing on the table. He died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution began. Charles Frederick Warner was set to be executed as well, but it was not carried out following the Lockett debacle.
Sept. 30 – After months of investigation and review, DOC releases its revised execution protocol. The protocol mirrors that of Arizona, where Director Robert Patton formerly worked.
Oct. 10 – DOC officials show off the renovated execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. More than $106,000 was spent on the renovation, most of which was spent updating the operations room and death chamber itself. So far it has been used only once.

2015
Jan. 15 – Charles Frederick Warner, 47, is executed. It is later learned that a wrong drug — potassium acetate rather than potassium chloride — was used in his execution.
April 14 – Nitrogen gas inhalation adopted by state Legislature as execution option.
Sept. 16 – The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals stays the execution of Richard Glossip mere hours before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection. A new execution date is set for Sept. 30.
Sept. 30 – DOC officials realize they have again purchased potassium acetate instead potassium chloride as they prepare to execute Richard Glossip later that day. Glossip’s execution was halted.
Oct. 2 – Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals imposes indefinite stay on all executions.

2016
Nov. 8 – Despite state’s recent problems conduction executions, not to mention the court-mandated stay, Oklahoma voters elect to enshrine executions in the state’s constitution. The vote ensures capital punishment will be available even if higher courts later rule lethal injection unconstitutional.

2018
March 14 – Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh announces DOC will use nitrogen gas as primary method of execution.

2019
March 13 – Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter tells television station KFOR that the delay in finishing the state’s new death penalty protocol is due to difficulties in finding a device that will administer nitrogen gas, saying that manufacturers of such devices are wary of public blowback.

March 28 – Hunter tells attendees at an Oklahoma District Attorneys Council meeting that, unable to purchase the equipment needed to administer nitrogen in an execution, the state would instead look to build its own device.

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Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan has two kids, three dogs, and no time to himself. He's fueled by QuikTrip and Twitter. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
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