, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

March 17, 2013

Death penalty slowly falls, but not in Oklahoma

— OKLAHOMA CITY — States use the death penalty less and less often across the country, and some have even dropped it altogether, but Oklahoma likely won't join the ranks of those that have outright abolished it.

The annual number of executions in the U.S. has fallen by more than half over the past 15 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, and 17 states no longer allow capital punishment of murder. But while the number of Oklahoma executions has also fallen, it has put to death more convicted prisoners than all but two other states, and there seems to be little chance to change that.

"I think it's safe to say there's a lot of support for the death penalty in Oklahoma," said state Sen. Constance Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, one of the few state legislators publicly opposed to capital punishment.

A 2011 report from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation found nearly 90 percent of Oklahomans supported the death penalty, and spokespeople for both Gov. Mary Fallin and Attorney General Scott Pruitt said Friday the officials support the penalty for especially heinous crimes.

Johnson's proposal this year to study the death penalty's cost and impact on crime — frequent points of criticism from the penalty's opponents — quietly died when Sen. Anthony Sykes, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, refused to hear the bill. Calls to Sykes's office for comment Friday weren't returned.

Oklahoma has imposed roughly 100 executions since 1976, nearly all in the past two decades and at a greater rate, when compared to population, than Texas, long considered in the forefront of executions. Almost 60 people, including one woman, are currently on death row.

Steven Ray Thacker, convicted of three murders, last Tuesday became the first person to be executed this year in Oklahoma and the fifth in the country. Less than a week later, the Le Flore County District Attorney requested the death penalty against Johnathen Thacker — no relation to Steven Thacker — for the death of an Arkansas woman whose body was found in a pond near Pocola.

"That type of activity, that type of remorseless killing of another human being, deserves consideration of the ultimate penalty," said Jeff Smith, the DA. His office currently has three pending death-penalty cases, probably more than at any point in his 27-year career, Smith said.

But Oklahoma is also part of the national trend downward in executions. There were 43 executions last year, according to the information center, down from a peak of 98 in 1999. Oklahoma's peak of 18 executions came in 2001; last year the state had just six.

Maryland is on track to become the 18th state to abolish the death penalty as soon as its governor signs a bill passed by the House Friday, and the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, Richard Dieter, said more than a dozen other states are also considering doing so.

Increased awareness of wrongful convictions could be playing a role, he said, as well as the high costs of death penalty cases, which often bring seemingly endless appeals from defendants, and other factors.

"People have a little less confidence in the death penalty," Dieter said. "It might get the wrong person. And so the safer path is to convict the person but not sentence them to death."

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said he and other Oklahoma prosecutors were taking longer, closer looks at potentially death-eligible cases, which come in weekly in Oklahoma City.

"We look at death penalty cases harder than we ever have in the past to make sure we're doing the right thing for the right reasons," Prater said. "The death penalty needs to be sought in cases that are considered to be the worst of the worst."

Lydia Polley, co-chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, went even further, saying more Oklahomans oppose the penalty than might be expected.

"People don't want to bring it up because it's a very emotional and a very difficult issue," she said. "My guess is that there are a lot of people that are in the closet and would say they don't support the death penalty."

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