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Oklahoma legislator takes aim at death penalty

State Rep. Jason Dunnington speaks during a news conference in 2019. [Oklahoman Archive Photo]
State Rep. Jason Dunnington speaks during a news conference in 2019. [Oklahoman Archive Photo]

A member of the Legislature has filed a bill to end the death penalty in Oklahoma and make the stiffest punishment for capital crimes life in prison or life without parole. Does it have any chance of surviving?

The likelihood would appear to be remote, given that the Republican-controlled Legislature just a few years ago approved a new way of carrying out executions. Yet the effort by Rep. Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City, may begin a conversation among policymakers that other former death penalty states have had.

In filing House Bill 2876, Dunnington said he’s been proud to have a hand in recent criminal justice reform. This includes his bill, approved last session, that allows for an accelerated clemency process for inmates convicted of felonies that were reclassified as misdemeanors through approval of a 2016 state question.

Now, Dunnington says, “Oklahomans are becoming more aware of the wasted costs of capital punishment, a system that provides no deterrent to crime while flushing millions down the drain that could be better spent on responses to violence that actually work.”

He says his proposal is neither partisan nor ideological. “The profound problems with the death penalty are a concern for all Oklahomans, indeed for all Americans,” Dunnington said.

It’s concerns about how executions are carried out that have kept Oklahoma’s death chamber quiet since January 2015.

The concerns were raised following an execution in 2014 that lasted 43 minutes and had the condemned man writhing and grimacing on the gurney. An investigation revealed several problems including faulty protocol, and eventually led to the Legislature approving nitrogen gas as the method of execution instead of drug injection.

Development of a new execution protocol continues. Meantime, death sentences are becoming more and more infrequent here and elsewhere. Oklahoma juries handed down the ultimate punishment just twice in 2019 and have done so only six times since 2015. Nationwide, a death sentence was imposed 35 times in 2019, eight fewer than the year before, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In May 2019, New Hampshire’s legislature voted to abolish the death penalty. Seven months earlier, Washington state’s supreme court had declared that state’s death penalty unconstitutional. It’s now off the books in 21 states and is the subject of governor-imposed moratoriums in four others.

A Gallup poll in October found that 60% of Americans preferred a sentence of life without parole for murder, as opposed to the death penalty. That was up from 45% in 2014, and marked the first time in Gallup’s 34 years of asking that a majority of Americans took that stance.

Gallup found that Republicans remain in favor of the death penalty, but to a lesser degree than five years ago. In conservative Oklahoma, a 2016 SoonerPoll found continued strong support for the death penalty, but a majority of those surveyed said they would be OK with the state doing away with capital punishment and using life sentences instead.

What all this means for Dunnington’s effort, we’ll see in time.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›