Examining the death penalty in Oklahoma: Insights from last week’s interim study (Capitol Update)

The House Judiciary-Criminal Committee conducted an interim study on the death penalty last week at the request of Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow. McDugle became concerned with the way the state applies the death penalty after taking an interest in the case of Richard Glossip, who was convicted of murder in 1998.

Glossip was sentenced to death in an alleged murder-for-hire scheme based largely on the testimony of Justin Sneed, who committed the murder and claimed he had been hired by Glossip to commit the crime. Sneed made a deal with prosecutors to testify against Glossip in return for a life without parole recommendation. The original case was reversed on appeal, and Glossip was convicted again in 2004. His case is still pending before the U.S. Supreme Court due to delays caused by his appeals, actions of the state related to difficulties in conducting executions, and questions about his actual innocence.

The interim study was more substantive than one might expect, with several witnesses pointing out weaknesses in the state’s legal process that leave open the possibility of a wrongful conviction. Emma Rolls, of the Federal Public Defender’s Office, said it should come as no surprise that Oklahoma has the highest rate of death row exonerees per capita because it has the worst legal framework for post-conviction relief. Rolls made several recommendations for change. 

In addition, attorney and former U.S. Magistrate Judge Andy Lester, a Republican, testified the Death Penalty Review Commission — co-chaired by himself, former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, and retired Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Reta Strubhar — had conducted an 18-month study on the death penalty. In a 300-page report in 2017, the commission recommended a death penalty moratorium, which was then in place, be extended until a series of 46 recommendations touching all aspects of the death penalty process in Oklahoma could be implemented. He said the commissioners were “all convinced that Oklahoma is not doing what is necessary to make sure innocent people aren’t being sentenced to death in Oklahoma.” Lester said none of the Commission’s recommendations have been adopted.

Former Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones told the committee that so long as the state is using the current execution protocols there will be botched executions. 

Jason Hicks, the district attorney for Jefferson, Stephens, Grady, and Caddo counties was invited to speak by Committee Chairperson, Rande Worthen, R-Lawton, who was an assistant district attorney for 29 years before being elected to the legislature. Hicks said he is a strong supporter of the death penalty and that it is administered properly in the “worst of the worst” cases. He said the main problem he sees is that it takes too long for the perpetrator to be put to death. He said victims’ families should be able to heal and move on with their lives.

Rep. McDugle said he believes in the death penalty, but he is concerned that there are some facing death who did not commit those “worst of the worst” crimes. McDugle said he likely will not file a bill to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in Oklahoma but that could change if no action is taken to fix some of the problems. 


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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