Panel recommends keeping moratorium on Oklahoma executions

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A moratorium on executions in Oklahoma should be extended until major changes are made to the state’s capital punishment system so that an innocent person isn’t put to death, a state commission recommended on Tuesday.

The 11 members of the bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission agreed unanimously on more than 40 recommendations on topics like forensics, law enforcement techniques, prosecution and defense procedures, death penalty eligibility and the execution process itself.

“Ultimately we found that there are many serious systemic flaws in Oklahoma’s death penalty process that obviously can and have led to innocent people being convicted and put on death row,” said former Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, who oversaw dozens of executions during his two terms as governor from 2003 to 2011. “If we’re going to have the death penalty, it must be done right to ensure that no innocent person is executed.”

Since 1973, 158 inmates have been released from death rows across the nation, including 10 inmates sentenced to death in Oklahoma, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

One of the commission members, Christy Sheppard, is the cousin of Debbie Carter, a woman killed in Ada in 1982. In that case, two men were convicted, including one sentenced to death, before both were freed after DNA evidence pointed to another suspect.

“We had lost all faith in the criminal justice system, in addition to the agonizing guilt that two innocent men had suffered,” Sheppard said. “For my aunt, Debbie’s mother, the death penalty had become a false promise.”

Henry, who co-chaired the panel with retired appeals court Judge Reta Strubhar and former federal magistrate Andy Lester, said among his most serious concerns were a lack of resources and funding for public defenders who represent defendants in capital cases.

“They are just overwhelmed with felony cases. They don’t have enough attorneys. They don’t have the funding they need, especially in death penalty cases, to hire investigators, to hire experts,” Henry said. “You have to decide whether you want to pay to do it right. And right now we are not providing the resources to do it right … especially at the trial court level.”

Oklahoma has had one of the busiest death chambers in the country since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its ban on the death penalty in 1976, but hasn’t carried out an execution since January 2015. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued a moratorium on the death penalty in October 2015 at the request of the attorney general’s office after it was learned the wrong drug was used in that execution and that the same wrong drug had been delivered for a second execution scheduled in September 2015.

The drug mix-ups followed a botched execution in April 2014 in which inmate Clayton Lockett struggled on a gurney before dying 43 minutes into his lethal injection — and after the state’s prisons chief ordered executioners to stop.

A grand jury investigation into the series of flawed executions led to a scathing report and the resignation of the former head of the Department of Corrections and the top attorney in Gov. Mary Fallin’s office, Steve Mullins, who had urged prison officials to proceed with the execution even after learning they had the wrong drug.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is overhauling their execution protocols, and a spokesman for the agency said prison officials have not had time to review the commission’s report.

Fallin said in a statement late Tuesday that her office hadn’t received a copy of the report but that they plan to review it.

Dale Baich, a federal public defender who challenged Oklahoma’s execution protocol after Lockett’s botched execution, said the commission’s report should lead to an honest discussion about whether the death penalty is sound public policy.

“If it remains, there are serious recommendations that need to be adopted before the state should go forward in carrying out the death penalty,” Baich said.

Executions have come under increasing scrutiny across the country as states scramble to find the necessary drugs needed to carry out lethal injections amid opposition from drug manufacturers to having their products used in executions. The report’s release comes a day after neighboring Arkansas carried out two executions on the same day, part of an original plan to execute eight inmates over an 11-day period before that state’s supply of a key drug expired.

The Republican-led Oklahoma Legislature has approved an alternate method of execution using nitrogen gas, which has never before been used to execute humans. But because that method is untested, the panel did not recommend its use, Henry said.

“Best practices evolve over time, but the current best protocol is the one-drug barbiturate protocol rather than the three drug cocktail that we have here in Oklahoma,” Henry said.

Oklahoma currently has 48 inmates who have been sentenced to death, 15 of whom have exhausted their appeals and are awaiting an execution date.

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