Earlier this month, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission issued their findings after spending a year examining our capital punishment system. The Commission concluded that it is costly and dangerously administered, and therefore, executions should be halted for the time being. Given these findings and that 53% of Oklahomans favor death penalty alternatives, the time is right to reexamine Oklahoma’s capital punishment program.
Most Oklahomans loathe the idea of killing innocent Americans, which is a real risk in our death penalty system. The Oklahoma death penalty, like any government program, is imperfect, and when a mistake occurs innocent lives are imperiled. To date, ten individuals have been wrongly sentenced to die and eventually released from our death row. Others have been executed despite lingering doubts about their verdicts.
Take for instance Ronald Williamson, whose case is described in John Grisham’s book An Innocent Man. Williamson was convicted of a murder in Ada on the basis of a so-called “dream confession.” Williamson was sent to Oklahoma’s death row and spent 11 years in prison—coming within five days of an execution at one point—before new DNA evidence proved his innocence. While accurate forensics saved Williamson, Oklahoma’s reputation has been unfortunately tainted by many instances of deceitful forensic practices.
Currently, Richard Glossip is languishing on Oklahoma’s death row, but there’s no physical evidence linking him to his alleged crime. His guilty verdict largely relies on the statement of the admitted killer who received a life sentence rather than death, but his questionable testimony has changed at least eight times. It also appears that Glossip’s current attorney has located witnesses who corroborate his claims of innocence. I can’t say whether Glossip is guilty or not, but the point is that the risk of executing an innocent person in Oklahoma is real.
Many Oklahomans also worry about government inefficiencies, and the death penalty stands out as an example. According to numerous studies, the death penalty comes at a disproportionately high cost. Because of the complex, mandated legal proceedings, each capital case can cost millions of dollars more than life without parole. Moreover, capital cases have been the impetus for tax increases across the United States. Jasper County, TX, for instance, raised their property taxes by 7% to cover the cost of a single death penalty trial. Considering that we have been grappling with budgetary shortfalls, it should come as no surprise that Oklahomans are increasingly critical of wasteful government programs, and many are asking if the death penalty makes fiscal sense.
I believe it is the duty of elected officials to justify every dime the state spends and weigh the benefits of state programs, like the death penalty. However, studies have shown that there is no evidence to suggest that executions deter murder. Actually, murder rates are higher in states with the death penalty. Worst yet, the death penalty process is so convoluted and drawn out that many murder victims’ families feel that it is a much more harmful process than that of life without parole. With this being known, it is clear that Oklahoma taxpayers are not getting an appropriate return on their investment.
Beyond these issues, the way the death penalty has been administered has become a black eye on our great state. First, there was a botched an execution in 2014, and another one went awry in 2015 because officials accidentally administered a chemical normally used to deice runways rather than the approved lethal injection drug. These missteps prompted a multi-county grand jury to investigate what went wrong, and their findings were embarrassing and inexcusable. The report revealed governmental malfeasance and was best summed up by former Attorney General Pruitt who described those involved as “careless, cavalier and…dismissive of established procedures.” When fellow Oklahomans claim that they deserve better, I wholeheartedly agree.
I know there are passionate feelings on both sides of the death penalty debate, but rather than reconsidering capital punishment through a subjective lens, we should judge it based on objective facts. Only then is it clear that capital punishment is a public policy failure that violates numerous tenets of conservatism and libertarianism, including valuing life, liberty, fiscal responsibility, and limited government.
Jacob Morgan is a student at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. He was the past chapter president of the SOSU Young Americans for Liberty. He is also a supporter of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.