Pace Of Executions Slows In Oklahoma

Sunday, November 26th 2006, 2:02 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Eighty-three killers have been executed in Oklahoma over the last 16 years, equaling the amount of people put to death at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in the first six decades of the state's existence.

But the pace of executions has slowed significantly in recent years, especially when compared to 2001, when Oklahoma put 18 people to death, more than any other state that year.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections statistics show the number of inmates on death row has declined from 114 in 2002 to the current population of 86. Nationally, the death row population of all states has gone down five of the last six years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics.

Death penalty opponents are hoping the numbers are part of a shift in the public's attitude toward society's most extreme form of punishment.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson, however, said ``a very strong majority'' of Oklahomans still favor the death penalty.

Between 1966 and 1990, there were no executions in Oklahoma, which reinstated the death penalty in 1977 under U.S. Supreme Court guidelines.

Oklahoma was the first state in the nation to pass a law allowing for executions to be carried out through a lethal injection of drugs.

Oklahoma executed four people in 2005 and will likely end the year with the same number of executions this year, according to Edmondson. The attorney general has asked the state Court of Criminal Appeals to schedule an execution date for Tulsa County killer Corey Duane Hamilton, but does not believe execution will be happen until January.

The four executions in 2005 and so far this year are the smallest number in any one year since 1998, when an equal number of executions were carried out at the OSP in McAlester.

The 18 executions that took place in 2001 came after 11 executions in 2000. In 2002, six people were put to death, then 14 were executed in 2003.

Edmondson does not anticipate further declines in the execution rate in Oklahoma.

``We had a huge backlog on death row from 1966 to 1990 without a single execution,'' he said. ``During that time period the number of people on death row were increasing with none coming out the other end except by reversals.

``Now that backlog is basically being cleared and the execution rate is more appropriate in terms of new arrivals (on death row).''

Edmondson supported legislation that shortened the appeals process in Oklahoma, accounting partly for the jump in executions early in this decade.

Jerry Massie, Department of Corrections spokesman, said a number of factors are probably at play in the drop in death row inmates, including capital punishment cases being overturned and juries opting to impose life without parole instead of the death penalty.

Shirley Cox, an attorney with the anti-death penalty Catholic Charities of Oklahoma, said the Supreme Court ruling prohibiting executions of mentally retarded people was a factor.

Cox also said juries may be more likely to impose a life sentence, realizing the possibility that an innocent person could be executed, a likelihood she said was reinforced by the release of death row inmates in several states because DNA evidence showed they did not commit the crimes for which they were sentenced to death.

``It seems like that regardless of your position on the death penalty, nobody wants innocent people to be executed,'' she said.

Eighty-two of the first people executed in Oklahoma were electrocuted. One person was hanged. The electric chair at the OSP came to be known ``Old Sparky'' over the years and now is in a museum.

Oklahoma became a state in 1907 but did not carry out an execution until 1915.

The use of lethal injection, although generally considered more humane than other forms of capital punishment, has led to more executions than otherwise would have been carried out, some death penalty foes believe.

They include former state Rep. Bill Wiseman, who wrote the lethal injection law after consulting with the state's medical examiner.

``It's the old law of unintended consequences,'' Wiseman said in an Associated Press interview in 2001. ``A reporter warned me that more executions would occur if granny didn't have to be squeamish about the electric chair.''