Beginning this Thursday, the state of Oklahoma plans to kill seven people over the next five months.
The last few times Oklahoma attempted to execute death row inmates, it botched the procedures so badly — using the wrong drug and an improper IV setup, in separate cases — that the state stayed executions while a grand jury investigated the process.
But it doesn’t actually matter how competent the killing process is — it’s wrong, even if it doesn’t suspend someone’s death for 43 minutes while they suffer on the gurney, as Clayton Lockett did in 2014. It’s time, for a number of reasons, for Oklahoma to change its stance on the death penalty.
First, there’s the issue of the sanctity of human life, a topic Oklahoma talks about constantly in the context of abortion.
In a story about incoming abortion restrictions published late last month, Gov. Kevin Stitt told The Frontier he would sign restrictive abortion bills that passed his desk, because he considers every pregnancy to be a life. The following excerpt stands out:
"Stitt told The Frontier he has considered the concerns of providers and reproductive rights advocates about the loss of abortion access and the lack of exemptions for rape or incest, but he believes each pregnancy is ‘a life.’
“'And I’m going to err on that side. And there’s all kinds of what ifs that people try to play with you,” he said of the lack of exemptions. “At the end of the day, if you have a heartbeat, we’re resolute that we should not take a life.'”
The quote communicates what the state believes about life at the beginning, but the logic doesn't seem to carry over to the state’s view of people convicted of crimes.
If we are actually “resolute that we should not take a life,” and if we want to say life has value and deserves protection, how can we kill seven men with the power of the state? A person convicted of a heinous crime is still a life, still a person with a family, still deserving of dignity. The death penalty is not dignity.
National attention has gone to Julius Jones’ case, and deservedly so. The details of his case beg the question of whether he ever should have been incarcerated.
But six other men are also waiting to be put to death by the state. In a conversation about the merits of the death penalty, our argument is not that only innocent people or people who may have been falsely accused deserve not to die — guilty people deserve life, too.
Still, concern about executing the innocent is becoming more and more of a public issue. Pew Research, in poll results released this summer, found that even though 60% of U.S. adults support the death penalty for someone convicted of murder, 56% of those surveyed say Black people are more likely to be sentenced to death than white people for committing similar crimes, while 78% believe there’s the risk that an innocent person will be executed. Just 30% of those who solidly support the death penalty believe adequate safeguards exist to keep innocent people from execution.
The majority of people surveyed (63%) by Pew also believe the death penalty is not a deterrent to committing serious crimes.
The belief is backed by the fact that the death penalty is applied arbitrarily — some people receive life in prison for murder; some get the death penalty. A 2013 report from the Death Penalty Information Center said that just 2% of the counties in the United States were responsible for the majority of the death penalty sentences handed down since 1976; all of the death penalty cases from 1976 to 2013 occurred in just 15% of U.S. counties.
In 1972, even the Supreme Court of the United States ruled, in Furman v. Georgia, that the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment because it was allowed to be “so wantonly and so freakishly imposed.” In noting the discrepancies in death penalty sentences, Justice William Douglas wrote that “the discretion of judges and juries in imposing the death penalty enables the penalty to be selectively applied, feeding prejudices against the accused if he is poor and despised, and lacking political clout, or if he is a member of a suspect or unpopular minority, and saving those who by social position may be in a more protected position.”
There’s also evidence that supports the notion that the death penalty doesn’t deter serious crimes. A 2009 Columbia Law study that showed the homicide trends between Hong Kong, which abolished the death penalty in 1993, and Singapore, which had one of the highest execution rates in the world in the mid-90s, were similar from 1973-2008.
If the death penalty is arbitrarily applied in just a few places in the country, and a majority of us agree it does not turn people away from committing crime with the promise of execution, what is it for?
Certainly not the benefit of our state. Along with being cruel and unusual, the death penalty is fiscally irresponsible.
In 2017, the bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission found the state spends 1.5 times more to jail a death penalty defendant pre-trial than a defendant not facing the death penalty, The Tulsa World reported. Once in prison, those sentenced with the death penalty cost the state twice as much to house as other incarcerated people.
Reviews elsewhere find that between the time a death penalty case takes to go through the court system and the cost of housing people sentenced to death, states spend significantly more to put someone to death than they do to incarcerate someone for life without parole.
The above facts lead us to question what we want our justice system to be about. If we agree the justice system exists to inflict pain and retribution on people who do wrong, then the death penalty fits.
But if we agree that the justice system exists to bring a measure of healing after pain, to build up people to be stronger and wiser, to help create a society where individuals do not see crime as a solution to their problems or pain, the death penalty does not fit. It offers no second chances, no shot at healing or growing and no deterrent to crime, while costing Oklahomans far more than any alternative would. It’s simply the end of a life.
The death penalty is wrong because it repays death with death. It’s wrong because it begets suffering. And it’s wrong because all human life has value, no matter what a person has or hasn’t done.
It’s time for Oklahoma to abolish the death penalty.