An expert panel told Oklahoma lawmakers on Thursday that the state should pause executions until fundamental problems in its death penalty system are addressed. “Whether you support capital punishment or oppose it, one thing is clear,” Judge Andy Lester testified. “From start to finish, the Oklahoma capital punishment system is fundamentally broken.”
Mr. Lester, a former federal magistrate judge and general counsel for state lawmakers, chaired an independent, bipartisan review commission that investigated capital punishment in Oklahoma after a series of botched executions led to a court-ordered moratorium in 2015.
In a nearly 300-page report, the commission unanimously recommended that the moratorium should stay in place until problems ranging from faulty evidence, false testimony, unreliable eye witnesses, withholding of exonerating evidence, and the misuse of jailhouse informants to failed execution protocols are addressed.
But none of the commission’s more than 40 recommendations has been followed, Mr. Lester told lawmakers, and the system remains badly broken, even as executions have resumed.
“It is so broken that we cannot know whether someone who has been condemned is actually deserving of the ultimate penalty the state can impose,” he said.
Republican Rep. Kevin McDugle called the interim hearing to propose a moratorium. A death penalty supporter, Mr. McDugle has grown increasingly concerned about the risk of executing an innocent person.
“We have people on death row who don’t deserve the death penalty,” Mr. McDugle said. “The process in Oklahoma is not right. Either we fix it, or we put a moratorium in place until we can fix it.”
The data support these concerns and reveal a concerning error rate. Oklahoma has executed 122 people since 1976—the highest number of executions per capita—and just last month, Glynn Simmons became the 11th person exonerated after being sentenced to death in Oklahoma.
That means for every 11 people executed in Oklahoma, one person on death row has been exonerated.
Mr. Lester pointed to the case of Richard Glossip, whose innocence claims have garnered support from state lawmakers including Mr. McDugle, as an example of the problems with Oklahoma’s death penalty—including its troubling history of botched executions.
Mr. Glossip was scheduled to be executed in 2015 after the botched executions of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner in 2014 and 2015. Mr. Lockett died of a heart attack after writhing and groaning on the gurney when prison staff misplaced the IV line in his groin and injected lethal drugs into the surrounding tissue. Prison staff used the wrong drug to execute Mr. Warner, whose last words were, “My body is on fire.”
Mr. Glossip’s execution was called off at the last minute after the governor learned that prison officials had again received—and planned to use—the wrong drug. A grand jury determined the state had committed grave errors in the way it administered lethal injections.
Oklahoma’s failure to remedy these errors was apparent on October 28, 2021, when witnesses to John Grant’s execution reported that the first drug injected into Mr. Grant caused him to convulse and vomit.
Oklahoma officials said the state did not plan to make any changes to its lethal injection protocols, and the state has since executed nine people.
Former Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones, who oversaw 28 executions, said he can guarantee there will be more botched executions in Oklahoma.
The prison staff on the execution team are “some of the lowest paid state employees in government,” he noted. “It just takes one (person) who doesn’t do their job properly.”