Oklahoma defense attorneys have observed with interest the recent banning of the death penalty in Illinois. After an eleven year moratorium on capital punishment, the ban will be made permanent with the signing of a bill that will take effect on July 1, 2011.
Ban on the Death Penalty
When the moratorium was first put into place by then-governor George Ryan after 13 condemned inmates were cleared between 1977 and 2000. He then commuted the death sentences of 164 prisoners to life in prison. Current governor Pat Quinn commuted signed the ban into law and commuted the sentence of the remaining 15 death row inmates to life in prison without parole.
Governor Quinn cited the fallibility of the criminal justice system in convicting the innocent as a reason necessitating his support of the abolishment of the death penalty. He pointed out several instances of condemned inmates being later exonerated.
How it Applies to Oklahoma
Criminal defense lawyers in Oklahoma note several cases of defendants sentenced to die and later cleared through DNA evidence. Robert Miller was cleared of rape and murder in 1998 after spending 9 years on Oklahoma's death row. Ron Williamson was exonerated by DNA evidence after nearly a decade on death row for a murder he didn't commit. Most notably, Curtis McCarty spent 18 years on Oklahoma's death row and was sentenced to death three times based on flawed forensic evidence and misconduct.
Oklahoma is one of thirty-four states which still actively allows capital punishment, or the death penalty, for certain violent felonies. In fact, Oklahoma ranks third, behind only Texas and Virginia, in the number of executions performed annually, and leads the nation in executions per capita.
Oklahoma death penalty cases were recently in the spotlight after the state ran out of sodium thiopental, a key ingredient in Oklahoma's lethal injection "cocktail" that renders the inmate unconscious prior to administration of two drugs that paralyze the muscles and stop the heart. Oklahoma planned to use a similar drug used in animal euthanasia until more sodium thiopental became available.
The attorneys for two inmates scheduled to be executed with the new drug challenged the change, saying the new lethal cocktail amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The challenge was overruled in Federal court, and Oklahoma first used pentobarbital instead of sodium thiopental on December 16, 2010, in the execution of John David Duty.
Duty was sentenced to death after strangling his cellmate. Duty was already serving three life sentences from a 1978 conviction for rape, robbery, and shooting with intent to kill. Oklahoma death penalty law allows a sentence of death for first-degree murder convictions in which one or more of eight statutorily defined aggravating circumstances are met.
These circumstances include:
- prior conviction of a violent felony
- defendant knowingly created great risk of death to more than one person
- murder for hire
- an exceptionally atrocious or cruel murder
- murder committed to avoid arrest or prosecution
- a murder committed while serving a sentence for a felony conviction
- probability of repeat offense and threat to society
Additionally, the state continues to be one of a handful to push for the death penalty in Oklahoma child rape cases, despite a 2008 Supreme Court Ruling which found a Louisiana law making child rape a capital case to be unconstitutional.