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Oklahoma decision stokes arguments over death penalty

The execution chamber at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. [AP File Photo]
The execution chamber at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. [AP File Photo]

In declaring that the state of Oklahoma would resume capital punishment after a five-year hiatus, officials rekindled a debate that seems to grow more and more intense and isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Death penalty opponents harshly criticized the announcement by Gov. Kevin Stitt and Attorney General Mike Hunter that a reliable supply of drugs had been secured and thus executions by drug injection would begin again.

On the other hand, the news was welcomed by relatives of victims, some of whom have waited nearly two decades for justice. “Sixteen years to wait for a sentence to be carried out is just way too long,” one family member told The Oklahoman’s Nolan Clay.

That sentiment was shared by Hunter during last week’s news conference, the subject of which was a surprise because Oklahoma has been pursuing a new method of execution — nitrogen hypoxia — since 2015 when the state last carried out an execution by drug injection.

That method had been used here for many years, largely without incident. But an execution in 2014 in which the intravenous needle was inserted improperly resulted in the condemned man writhing on the gurney and not being declared dead for 43 minutes. An investigation showed a lack of training among execution team members.

Oklahoma carried out an execution in January 2015, but one scheduled for September that year was called off when a doctor realized a wrong drug had been obtained (the same drug, it was later learned, had been used in the January execution).

The mix-up was investigated by a state multicounty grand jury, which blamed, among other things, significant failures by Department of Corrections officials and subpar execution protocol. The grand jury recommended several changes.

One reason the Legislature approved a move to nitrogen gas was that obtaining the necessary drugs had become so difficult. Many drug makers have stopped providing their products to states if they are to be used for executions, and that has impacted Oklahoma and other states. Hunter didn’t say how or where the state had gotten the drugs now on hand. It’s a safe bet they will again become scarce. Hunter did say the state is continuing to explore nitrogen hypoxia as the method.

Some critics of Oklahoma’s resumption of executions said the state had shown that its ability to carry out executions was suspect at best. That argument has some merit, and it falls to the DOC to prove those critics wrong whenever the next execution occurs.

A criticism that carries less weight is that many state officials who endorse the death penalty also consider themselves “pro-life.” Those arguments ring hollow, as they’re often made by politicians who vigorously defend as a “women’s health” issue taking the lives of the unborn.

Turning again to drug injection is surprising. But there was little doubt the state would resume capital punishment, which enjoys support among the populace and the Republican-controlled Legislature. Until that changes, the debate will rage.

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 ›