Tulsa DA, a devout Catholic, expresses support for death penalty despite Pope Francis’ change to doctrine

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Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler is, like most Catholics in this country, a supporter of the death penalty. A Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this year showed that 53 percent of American Catholics favor the death penalty.
Despite an announcement from The Vatican that the death penalty is “unacceptable in all cases,” Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, a devout Catholic, told The Frontier he intended to continue seeking capital punishments “when appropriate.”

Kunzweiler’s opponents in the DA race — Republican Ben Fu and Democrat Jenny Proehl-Day — also told The Frontier they would utilize the death penalty when necessary.

Pope Francis approved the changes to Catholic teaching earlier this month.

“The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church now says.

But for Kunzweiler, the issue is perhaps a little more complex. The longtime prosecutor is, like most Catholics in this country, a supporter of the death penalty. A Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this year showed that 53 percent of American Catholics favor the death penalty.

That figure is just slightly below the country’s overall figure (54 percent approval) according to the poll. Just 39 percent of Americans are opposed to the death penalty, compared to 42 percent of American Catholics.

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

“I have a lot of people who are like, ‘Hey, you’re Catholic, how can you be in favor of the death penalty?’” Kunzweiler said during a recent interview. “I’m like, ‘I’m pro-life but I also believe there are circumstances in which individuals present a risk to public safety.

“As long as we have laws that govern activities and potential punishments and it’s (the death penalty) still on the books, then that’s my job.”

Death penalty declining in Oklahoma amid troubles, changing attitudes
Like much of the country, executions in Oklahoma have slowed. Though the state has the third-highest total of executions since capital punishment was re-legalized in 1976, the Sooner State has killed just 17 people since Mary Fallin was elected governor (compared to 40 executions under Brad Henry, a Democrat).

Frank Keating, who served as governor from 1995 to 2002, oversaw 52 executions.

No one in the state has been executed since January 2015, when Charles Frederick Warner, 47, was put to death. Warner was executed about eight months after Clayton Darrell Lockett’s execution was carried about. Warner and Lockett were scheduled to be executed on the same night — a rarity even in a state with a long history of executions — but Lockett’s death went awry.

Witnesses said he was writhing, convulsing and attempting to climb off the gurney he was strapped to. It took more than 40 minutes for him to die.

Lockett, 38, had been convicted of the brutal 1999 kidnap, beating and murder of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman. Lockett’s accomplice dug a shallow grave off a stretch of rural road in central Oklahoma where Neiman was ultimately buried.

Despite the gruesome details of Neiman’s murder, Lockett’s botched lethal injection (which utilized a drug combination previously unused in executions in the country) turned him into a cause-celebre of sorts, and put increased scrutiny on the death penalty here.

And when it was discovered that Warner was executed eight months later using the wrong drug combination — officials thought they were using potassium chloride to stop Warner’s heart, but inadvertently used potassium acetate — that scrutiny increased.

The state tried later in 2015 to execute Richard Glossip multiple times and yet Glossip remains alive and in prison thanks to a bizarre series of events and court proceedings that have kept him out of the death chamber. Even Glossip himself was surprised when he survived the last attempt the state made — he had eaten his last meal (the second he had been granted after a previous execution attempt had been halted months earlier) and was watching television in a holding room in order to figure out why he was still alive.

Glossip was convicted of paying an accomplice (Justin Sneed) to murder a motel owner they both worked for. Sneed pleaded guilty in exchange for a life without parole sentence. Oklahoma law allows for the death penalty for “murders for hire,” and Glossip had the misfortune to be prosecuted by “Cowboy” Bob Macy,” who sent 54 people to death row in 21 years, “more than any other prosecutor in the U.S. in that period,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Like Lockett, Glossip also earned a bit of fame in the process, and the 55-year-old was even alive to enjoy it. Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and staunch anti-death penalty advocate, has championed his cause for years. Ian Woods, a British journalist who covered the attempts to take Glossip’s life, wrote a book chronicling the experience, claiming that he and Glossip had become friends in the process.

For now, the death penalty is on hold in Oklahoma as officials try to hammer out a new protocol. In March, Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh announced alongside state attorney General Mike Hunter that in the future prisoners would be executed via “inert gas asphyxiation,” an unproven if increasingly popular method.

Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh. Courtesy

Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi have authorized the method, in which someone inhales nitrogen into their lungs, quickly passes out and dies from lack of oxygen.

Hunter called it “the safest, the best and most effective method available.”

It’s “safeness” has been questioned, if not its effectiveness. Most research about the process comes from deaths in medical mishaps, industrial accidents and suicides.

Allbaugh said at the time that he hoped to have “something of a preliminary fashion” in “90 to 120 days,” a time frame that has since passed. The DOC issued a release last week stating they were still developing a protocol alongside Hunter.

“Such work is important and detailed; and its results must stand up in court,” DOC wrote in the release.

Pope John Paul II
Kunzweiler said it’s not Pope Francis that he relies on — it’s Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope whose Papacy lasted nearly 30 years.

John Paul II, who died in 2005, was posthumously Canonized in 2014.

“Maybe my reasoning isn’t exactly sound,” Kunzweiler said, “but I’m going to lean on the idea that if a recognized Saint in the Catholic Church was fine with (the death penalty,) I feel like I’m in fairly good company.”

However the record shows John Paul II’s death penalty stance was far from full support. When Pope Francis deemed the death penalty as “inadmissible,” he changed years of Catholic doctrine that taught that capital punishment was allowed “in limited cases.”

Pope John Paul II taught that the death penalty was justifiable if “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively,” according to his writings in the Evangelium vitae.

He had approved wording in 1992 that allowed the death penalty in cases where the “guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined,” though he added that it should only be allowed “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

But he also traveled the country in defense of those facing the death penalty, and offered a prayer at the Papal Mass in 2000 where he said the the death penalty was “an unworthy punishment,” and asked that it be “abolished throughout the world.”

The year prior, Pope John Paul II said during a Papal Mass in St. Louis, Missouri, that the death penalty was “both cruel and unnecessary.”

Kunzweiler, whose office has begun to ramp up efforts to have the death penalty considered as an option in some murder cases, said he’s “duty bound” to do so no matter what the Pope’s position is.

“With all respect to Pope Francis, I respect (what he said) but at the same time the bottom line is my job is to uphold the laws of this state,” Kunzweiler said. “Until Oklahoma or the U.S. Supreme Court outlaws the death penalty, that’s a law I am duty bound to give consideration to.”

Other candidates also express support for death penalty
Ben Fu, a former prosecutor under Kunzweiler who is set to face his old boss in the Republican primary election on Aug. 28, said the death penalty is “appropriate when justice demands it.”

Fu, whose campaign has focused on what he calls being “smart on crime,” called the death penalty “resource intensive, emotional, and draining,” and noted the problems Oklahoma has had carrying executions out in the past.

Benjamin Fu. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

“However it needs to be considered as an option when the case demands it,” he said. “The people of Oklahoma have voted to keep that as an option and the United States Supreme Court has said it’s lawful.”

Fu noted that anyone sentenced to death currently would have their case wind through the courts with appeals and hearings for years, possibly decades, before they were ultimately executed.

“If the people of Oklahoma want this option to be exercised, we have to do it in a just manner,” Fu said. “We can never forget our charge that the defendant is still a human being.”

Jenny Proehl-Day, a Democrat who will face either Fu or Kunzweiler in November, said she believed her personal opinions about the death penalty “aren’t relevant to doing the job that I’m elected to do.”

Jenny Proehl-Day. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Like Fu, Proehl-Day served as a prosecutor under Kunzweiler before leaving for private practice.

“Being a Democrat, traditionally, we are anti-death penalty,” Proehl-Day said. “But the reality is in Oklahoma it’s the law.

“Obviously the death penalty is one of those things that need to be taken very, very seriously,” she said. “It always has to be on the table when you’re talking about especially heinous murders. It has to be something you’re willing to look at.”

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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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