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Bible Belt state with nation’s highest execution rate considers death penalty flaws

Connie Johnson, center, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, campaigns against the death penalty in an Oklahoma City neighborhood on Oct. 16, 2016. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

OKLAHOMA CITY (RNS) Most Oklahomans believe the devil is real.

State Rep. Mike Ritze thinks that’s why they overwhelmingly support capital punishment, despite highly publicized problems with lethal-injection drugs that prompted state officials to put a temporary moratorium on executions in 2015.

Rep. Mike Ritze, an Oklahoma Republican and Southern Baptist deacon in the Tulsa area, co-authored a pro-death penalty state question supported by two-thirds of voters. Photo courtesy of Oklahoma House of Representatives

“Because of our faith-based population, we believe there is evil in the world,” said Ritze, a Southern Baptist deacon who co-authored a pro-death-penalty measure supported by 66 percent of voters in the November general election.

“We believe in a devil, and we believe in a God,” the Republican lawmaker said. “As a result, I think Oklahomans are very supportive of the death penalty.”

But last week — just as neighboring Arkansas finished executing four death-row inmates in eight days before one of its lethal-injection drugs expired — the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission recommended that the moratorium be extended.

The commission cited “the volume and the seriousness of the flaws” in the state’s capital punishment system. The bipartisan group of Oklahoma leaders, organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Constitution Project, made 46 recommendations to revamp the process.

“Many of the findings of the commission’s year-long investigation were disturbing and led commission members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death,” according to the in-depth report.

In some cases, “Oklahoma prosecutors have invoked inflammatory language to minimize the jurors’ sense of responsibility in capital cases, such as invoking God and the Bible in arguing for the death penalty,” according to a discovery cited on Page 81 of the 272-page document.

The group noted that Oklahoma — with 112 death sentences carried out since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976 — boasts the nation’s highest per-capita execution rate.

The gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Okla. Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Department of Corrections

However, the state’s last execution, in January 2015, made international headlines when a newspaper revealed nine months later that the wrong drugs were used to put Charles Frederick Warner to death.

“My body is on fire,” Warner said as the drugs flowed, prompting claims of “cruel and unusual punishment” from death penalty opponents.

The execution of Warner, who killed a baby in 1997, followed a botched April 2014 lethal injection in which Clayton Darrell Lockett writhed and moaned on the gurney after he’d been declared unconscious.

Connie Johnson, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the commission’s findings have “opened up all kinds of possibilities that can lead to justice.”

Connie Johnson, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, is a Christian and former state senator who forgave her brother’s killer. Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma State Senate

Johnson, a former Democratic state senator, is a longtime member of the Church of the Living God in Oklahoma City and the sister of a murder victim. She said she forgave the man who killed her brother, just as she believes Jesus died so that her own sins could be forgiven.

“As an abolitionist, I can speak from a position of been there, done that,” Johnson said. “So when people say, ‘You would feel differently if someone killed your loved one,’ I can say, ‘Well, I did have a loved one killed, and the death penalty isn’t the right way.’”

Former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat whose administration presided over 40 executions from 2003 to 2011, served as one of three co-chairs for the 11-person death penalty review commission.

Henry, who taught Sunday school at his hometown Baptist church before moving into the governor’s mansion, described the drug snafus that gave rise to the investigation as manifestations of a larger problem.

“There are systemic flaws throughout the entire death penalty process, beginning with interrogations, beginning with eyewitness identifications, beginning with various forensic techniques that have been used that have been debunked as valid science,” Henry told reporters.

“There were members of this commission that would advocate for the abolition of the death penalty,” the former governor added. “There were members of this commission that were staunch defenders of the death penalty. But what we all agreed on is, if you’re going to have the death penalty, it ought to be done right.”

Gov. Mary Fallin, the two-term Republican who succeeded Henry, and her general counsel’s office will review the private commission’s report, Fallin’s press secretary Michael McNutt said this week.

Nationally, support for the death penalty has hit its lowest level in four decades, with 49 percent of Americans favoring it and 42 percent opposing it, according to the Pew Research Center. Two-thirds of U.S. states have paused executions or stopped them altogether, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

But in Oklahoma — where 4 out of 5 residents characterize themselves as “very religious” or “moderately religious,” according to Gallup polling — most residents view the death penalty as a just form of punishment.

“Just because there have been mistakes made in the process doesn’t mean there’s a mistake in the policy or the principle,” said Bill Hulse, senior pastor of Putnam City Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.

“Consequences are necessary,” said Hulse, whose Southern Baptist congregation averages 700 people in attendance on Sundays. “I know prison may not be the best place to be, but for some people, that isn’t much of a consequence. They’re going to get cable TV, medical care and three squares a day.”

But religious leaders who oppose capital punishment voiced hope the commission’s report will cause the majority of Oklahomans to reconsider their position.

The Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Roman Catholic archbishop of Oklahoma City, says capital punishment “only serves to further devalue human dignity.” Photo courtesy of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City

“I’m hopeful our state will eventually rely on other available ways to administer just punishment without resorting to lethal measures,” said Paul S. Coakley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Oklahoma City. “We don’t end the cycle of violence by committing more violence.

“In all of these crimes, we lost a life, and the death penalty only serves to further devalue human dignity,” Coakley added. “Justice can never be achieved by killing a human being.”

Jon Middendorf, senior pastor of Oklahoma City’s First Church of the Nazarene, said he opposes abortion and the death penalty.

Middendorf, whose progressive evangelical congregation claims 1,300 members, predicts support for the death penalty will decline — even in Oklahoma — as younger Christians gain power.

“I think things are changing and will change,” he said, “because I think there is a frustration with an older, more fundamentalist, legalistic version of evangelicalism.”

(Bobby Ross Jr. is an Oklahoma City-based journalist who has served as a media witness for four Oklahoma executions)

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Bobby Ross Jr.

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  • Romans 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil works. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from him, 4 for he is the servant of God for your good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain, for he is the servant of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him who practices evil.

  • The execution of Warner, who killed a baby in 1997, followed a botched April 2014 lethal injection in which Clayton Darrell Lockett writhed and moaned on the gurney after he’d been declared unconscious.

    “My body is on fire,” Warner said as the drugs flowed,…

    Sorry about that Clayton.
    But I wonder how the baby felt as you ended it little life – was it terrified, did it suffer?
    I wonder if Mom is still grieving after all these years over the loss of her child to a vicious murderer like you.
    I wonder about Grandma and Grandpa, uncles and aunts, cousins: are they still grieving?

    Maybe it wasn’t the drugs that were making you feel like your body was on fire – maybe it was God giving you a preview of what you were facing for eternity.

  • The death penalty is not biblical under America’s system of Justice which calls for “reasonable doubt” as opposed to the Bible’s requirement for at least two eyewitnesses, themselves subject to the death penalty in case of false testimony (is, beyond any doubt). We execute to many people who later turn out to be innocent. The systemic racism in America’s application of the death penalty is also biblical problematic.

    Christians worship a Savior who was falsely accused and executed although innocent, we should be particularly sensitive to America doing it to other innocents in our Name. Especially since, with the invention of prisons, we can remove violent people from society. Which should be the only goal of the death penalty, to protect society, not exact unbiblical vengeance.

  • Isn’t it funny how conservative Christians have suddenly rediscovered Romans 13? For 8 years it was like First and Second Maccabees and the Wisdom of Sirach, it’s like they cut it out of their Bibles! Now suddenly a White Republican is president, they glued it back in.

  • I think the Death Penalty is Biblically sound as Jesus has often said that if we sin too greatly, then there is no place in Heaven for us. As the Death Penalty is effectively saying to the convicted (and the general public) that what they have done is so terrible, they can no longer be allowed to live in any capacity in our society, it is a direct reflection on the teaching of Jesus that too much sin renders you unfit for salvation. Although, to be honest, I didn’t actually realise that until I read the thoughts of the several locally prominent religious leaders quoted in the article. Until I had my eyes opened by their interpretations of Scripture, I thought salvation was available to all, regardless of the sin, and that vengence was the providence of the Lord. Silly me.

  • Pol Pot? Idi Amin? Adolf Hitler? Josef Stalin? Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver, Ahmed Djemal?

  • Vlad the Impaler – you forgot him.
    Acts 5:27 … And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? Yet now you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring on us this Man’s blood.”

    29 Peter and the other apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.

  • Forgot Vlad. My bad.

    How do you reconcile Acts 5:27-29 with Romans 13:1-4 (or the U.S. Constitution)?

  • Put your thinking cap on – and think.
    First jot down observations about each text.
    Next look up key words.
    Then cross reference key concepts.
    Next formulate possible principles of citizenship based on your investigation.
    Finally draw conclusions.

    And then treat yourself to milk and cookies for a reward.
    Remember – share your insights with others.

  • So sad that freedom can be so minimally valued that lifelong incarceration is not seen as punishment but is offset by having 3 meals a day, free health care and cable TV instead.

    Naive to think that anything resembling home cooking would be served as a meal nor to consider meals a source for cost savings (meals provided only twice a day on weekends). In addition to prisoners being apparently liable for medical co-payments, more than half of states also now charge prisoners room and board as well as usually charging for incidentals like phone calls and Internet use.

  • ““Because of our faith-based population, we believe there is evil in the world,” said Ritze,”

    Oh FFS! You want people dead by order of the law because of your damn religious beliefs? What kind of demented, self absorbed thinking is that? Essentially saying. He has no legitimate argument to make for it and is relying on an emotional appeal. Give me a break! If you are going to have people killed, a non-sociopath would come up with better reasons. Ones which demonstrate an understanding of the gravity of the situation.

  • Sorry, but I see no possibility of a just system in the absense of the possibility of capital punishment. When the worst you can receive for robbing someone of their life, and multitudes other people of a loved one, is a lifetime of having your basic needs covered by the taxpayer…that isn’t justice.

  • Jesus said “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” I rather not be in the shoes of those on judgement seat religion as I am now under grace and not under the law with the living Christ. Remember last month when they had all these Roman justice in the other state, they had historically stormy tornado hail flood, did they recover yet?

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