State lawmakers, ministers call for execution study

Monday, March 7th 2005, 12:56 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Ministers joined state lawmakers Monday in demanding a study of whether the state has ever put an innocent person to death for a crime he did not commit.

Flanked by more than a dozen pastors, priests and representatives of faith-based groups, Rep. Opio Toure said he fears that an innocent person has been executed in the state.

"The religious leaders are here because they agree with me," said Toure, D-Oklahoma City. "It is not only likely, but also probable, that we have executed an individual on flimsy evidence."

Toure did not identify a wrongfully executed defendant. He has said there is evidence some defendants executed early in the state's history when the rules of evidence and appellate procedures were not well developed may have been innocent.

Toure called on Republican House Speaker Todd Hiett and the chairwoman of the House Rules Committee, Rep. Sue Tibbs, R-Tulsa, to allow a hearing on a measure that calls for a task force to study the issue.

"This should not enter into the area of partisan politics," said Pam Maisano of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches. "It can't possibly be damaging to either part to know the truth."

The Rev. Anthony Nelson of the Russian Orthodox Church in Oklahoma City said there is no greater wrong than the execution of an innocent person by his own government.

"If we trust out judicial system, we can look at it," Nelson said.

Toure said neither Hiett nor Tibbs has said whether they will hear the measure. It will die in the Rules Committee if it is not hear by Friday. Toure said he filed a similar bill last year that died in committee.

A telephone call to Tibbs' state Capitol office was not immediately returned.

Oklahoma has executed 158 people, including three women, since 1915. Oklahoma led the nation in the number of executions in 2001 with 18. Oklahoma had 93 inmates on death row at the end of January.

The legislation would create a 13-member task force to determine whether any defendant convicted of first-degree murder -- the only crime punishable by death -- and executed by the state was actually innocent.

Since 1981, seven Oklahoma death row inmates have been released from prison after they were exonerated of the crimes that resulted in the death penalty, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

"I sincerely believe that one or more of our citizens have been wrongfully executed in our state," Toure said. He said the state has a moral obligation to identify wrongfully executed prisoners, acknowledge the mistake and compensate family members.

Toure wrote legislation that was signed into law by Gov. Brad Henry in 2003 that allows citizens who are convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit to apply for up to $175,000 in compensation.

The measure is House Joint Resolution 1022.