2017-05-03 14:44:22 UTC
Oklahoma's once busy death chamber to stay quiet much longer
Oklahoma has had one of the busiest death chambers in the country for decades,
executing more people per capita than any other state since the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled in 1976 that death sentences could resume.
But after a botched lethal injection in 2014 and drug mix-ups in 2015 that led
to 1 inmate being executed with the wrong drug and another just moments away
from being strapped to a gurney before his lethal injection was halted, the
state is facing a series of hurdles and long delays before it could resume
While other states have put moratoriums in place because of shortages of key
drugs or growing opposition to the death penalty, Oklahoma's problems stem from
the inability of prison officials to carry out the executions as planned.
In neighboring Arkansas, four men have been executed in recent days, part of an
original plan to execute 8 inmates over an 11-day period before the expiration
date on that state's supply of midazolam, a sedative already linked to
problematic executions in Ohio and Arizona. The drug's effectiveness has again
been questioned following last week's execution in Arkansas of Kenneth
Williams, who lurched and convulsed 20 times during a lethal injection that
began with midazolam.
While Oklahoma voters staunchly support the ultimate punishment - more than 2/3
supported a pro-death penalty question on the ballot in November - it's not
clear if executions will resume again in Oklahoma any time soon.
A detailed report released last week by a commission that studied Oklahoma's
death penalty for more than a year unanimously recommended the state shouldn't
start executing inmates again until dozens of changes are made to various parts
of the death penalty process, from murder investigations to the actual death
"While I do believe there are people who are so bad and so evil that they
deserve the ultimate punishment, I think our process is broken, and until we
fix it we shouldn't be executing people," said former Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry,
who co-chaired the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission and who oversaw
dozens of executions during his 2 terms in office.
Henry voiced real concern over the possibility of an innocent person being put
to death, noting that 10 defendants have been freed from death row in Oklahoma
over the last 40 years.
One of those men - Ron Williamson - came within days of being executed before
he and another man sentenced to life in prison for the 1982 killing of Debbie
Carter were ultimately freed after DNA evidence pointed to another suspect.
One of the commission members, Christy Sheppard, is Carter's cousin and said
the entire experience soured her and her family on the death penalty.
"We watched those 2 men, who we believed were responsible for her death, simply
walk away, taking any truth that we had with them," Sheppard said.
While another suspect was eventually tried, convicted and sentenced to life in
prison, Sheppard said: "We had lost all faith in the criminal justice system,
in addition to the agonizing guilt that 2 innocent men had suffered."
Despite the commission's misgivings and a scathing grand jury report last year
on Oklahoma's bungled executions, Oklahoma's new Attorney General Mike Hunter
said he "respectfully disagrees" with the commission's conclusion that the
death penalty moratorium be extended. Hunter said last week he remains
confident the state soon will be ready to resume carrying out the death
"We're going to get a handle on the execution process," Hunter said. "There's
new management at the (Department of Corrections), and I'm confident they're
going to come up with a new execution protocol and that we'll move forward
The attorney general's office has said in court filings that it will not
request any execution dates until at least 150 days - or about 5 months - after
the new protocols are released. Meanwhile, 15 death row inmates in Oklahoma
have exhausted all of their appeals and are awaiting execution dates to be set.
(source: Associated Press)
Capital punishment: Commission urges 'serious reforms'
More than a year's worth of work has culminated in an almost 300-page report
released by a bipartisan group tasked with reviewing Oklahoma's capital
In the report, the 11-member Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission
unanimously agrees that the state's moratorium on capital punishment continue
until "significant reforms" can be made.
From the report's executive summary, released last week:
Many Oklahomans support the availability of the death penalty, as evidenced by
the vote in favor of State Question 776 in the November 2016 election.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that innocent people have been sentenced to
death in Oklahoma. And the burden of wrongful convictions alone requires the
systemic corrections recommended in this report.
Oklahoma has imposed a moratorium on executions since October 2015. The
moratorium followed the January 2015 execution of Charles Warner, in which the
wrong drug was used.
Changes recommended, conclusions made
The voluminous report recommends no less than 46 changes aimed at "systemic
problems in key areas, including forensics, innocence protection, the execution
process and the roles of the prosecution, defense counsel, jury and judiciary,"
according to a related press release issued Monday afternoon by the House of
Throughout the report, citations and data abound. Perhaps the conclusion
revealed at the end of Appendix IA constitutes a telling condition of the
"systemic" problems cited above:
The data show that death sentencing in Oklahoma is not related to the race of
the defendant. However, there are rather large disparities in the odds of a
death sentence that correlate with the gender and the race/ethnicity of the
victim. Controlling for other factors ... cases with white female victims,
cases with white male victims, and cases with minority female victims are
significantly more likely to end with a death sentence in Oklahoma than are
cases with nonwhite male victims.
With regard to specific agencies, the report in one instance suggests the
Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board add diversity to its panel. As reported Monday
by The Frontier, the departures of Patricia High and Vanessa Price left the
board without a quorum during April and also required a unanimous 3-0 vote
among the remaining 3 male members to approve commutation applications through
a 2-stage process.
Currently, 15 inmates in Oklahoma await execution dates, according to Reuters.
Rep. Young lauds commission's 'heavy work'
Rep. George Young (D-OKC), who is chairman-elect of the Oklahoma Legislative
Black Caucus, praised the bipartisan commission for their efforts Monday.
"I cannot thank the commissioners enough for their dedication to reviewing this
important subject," Young stated in a release. "They spent hours poring over
documents, interviewing experts and meeting with state officials, and the
commission reached unanimous decisions that should not be taken lightly.
"This is heavy work, and the commissioners left no stone unturned when
evaluating legal precedents and how they apply to Oklahoma's practices. Few
people would've been willing to spend days entrenched in capital punishment
procedures, but it was a necessary and noble commitment."
Pinal County man faces death penalty in killing of ex-wife's boyfriend
Prosecutors in Pinal County have filed a notice seeking the death penalty for a
man accused of killing his ex-wife's boyfriend.
Prosecutors believe the killing of 25-year-old Cody Virgin was done in a "cold,
calculated" manner and warrants the death penalty, The Casa Grande Dispatch
William Randolph, 27, had been arrested in February on suspicion of killing
Virgin and then disposing of his burned body.
He is accused of using a fake Facebook page to message Virgin and lure him to
the area where he had been killed.
Randolph has been charged with 1st-degree murder for Virgin's death and
aggravated harassment after being accused of instructing family members to
harass his former wife while he is in jail.
Will the death penalty ever be enforced in California?
Q If the majority of Californians support the death penalty, why isn't it
-- D.S., El Segundo
A In November, Californians narrowly approved a measure seeking to speed up
death penalty enforcement, and also defeated a measure that would have replaced
the death penalty with a sentence of life without possibility of parole. More
than 900 convicted killers have been sent to death row in California since
capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, yet only 13 have been executed since
then (the last in 2006).
The reason California has not carried out capital punishment is the method of
execution - lethal injection - was found by a federal court to potentially
involve cruel and unusual punishment. Revised lethal injection rules are again
being considered, but California corrections officials last week delayed their
new regulations by four months, If approved, the death penalty could well be
There are nearly 750 inmates on death row, but continuing challenges to the
death penalty are likely. As such, it is uncertain as to just when the death
penalty will again become a reality in California.
Q In what cases can the death penalty be imposed in California, and who
-- G.W., Carson
A The death penalty in California is applicable to 1st-degree murder with
special circumstances (such as murder of a peace officer, multiple murders,
murder involving a kidnapping), sabotage, train wrecking involving a fatality,
treason, fatal assault by a prisoner serving a life sentence, and perjury that
causes execution of an innocent individual. Pertinent death penalty statutes
are found at California Penal Code Section 187 through 189.
County prosecutors decide whether to seek the death penalty against a defendant
who qualifies for capital punishment. In cases where it is sought, a jury
decides if the death penalty will be imposed, and the jury's decision must be
Q Can a defendant get the death penalty in California even if he is not
responsible for the murder?
-- M.O., Lomita
A Yes. California Penal Code Section 189 outlines what is known as the felony
murder rule. A homicide committed during several types of felonies (such as
arson, robbery, mayhem, kidnapping and through use of an explosive device) can
bring a death sentence for those who participated in the crime, even though
they did not directly cause the death.
(source: Ron Sokol is a Manhattan Beach attorney with more than 30 years of
experience----The Daily Breeze)
Peninsula man serving double-murder sentence files for high court review
Darold Stenson has asked the state Supreme Court to review his 1993
Stenson, 64, was convicted in November 2013 on 2 counts of 1st-degree
aggravated murder for the shooting deaths of his wife and business partner at
his exotic bird farm near Sequim.
He filed a motion for review with the state Supreme Court on March 24, Clallam
County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols said Tuesday.
Stenson was sentenced in December 2013 to 2 consecutive life terms for the
deaths of Frank Hoerner, 33, and Denise Stenson, 29.
His 1994 death-penalty conviction had been overturned by the state Supreme
Court in May 2012.
A Court of Appeals upheld Stenson's 2nd conviction Feb. 22.
Nichols told Clallam County commissioners Monday that Stenson was "simply
exhausting his rights."
In response to Stenson's appeal to the high court, commissioners Tuesday
extended a special deputy agreement with appeals attorney Jeremy Morris of the
Port Orchard firm Glisson &Morris.
Morris, who filed an answer to Stenson's petition for review April 26, will
continue to represent the state in the Stenson case.
"We've been under contract with him for some time," Nichols told commissioners
in their work session Monday.
Nichols said a contract extension would provide "continuity in representation"
and allow his deputies to focus on their present caseloads. Funds for the
$6,500-maximum agreement were included in the budget.
"This is a very, very large case," Nichols said.
The Stenson case contains 1,104 documents filed in Clallam County Superior
The state Supreme Court will decide behind closed doors and without a hearing
whether to hear the Stenson case, Nichols said.
"A decision on whether to grant review usually is made within 6 months, but
there is no more specific timetable," Nichols said in a Tuesday email.
Clallam County will reimburse Morris $2,500 for the answer to the petition for
review, according to the contract.
If necessary, the county will pay Morris an additional $4,000 to prepare and
file a supplemental brief and make an oral argument before the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court arguments are typically made four to 8 months after a review is
granted, Nichols said.
"After argument, the Supreme Court would issue a decision in due course," said
Nichols, who added that there would be "no set timetable" for a decision.
Stenson was re-convicted after a 6-week trial in Kitsap County Superior Court.
Retired Clallam County Superior Court Judge S. Brooke Taylor was the presiding
judge. Taylor moved the trial to Port Orchard because of publicity that the
Stenson case generated in Clallam County.
At trial, former Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deborah Kelly convinced a
jury that Stenson shot and killed his wife and business partner at 55 Kane Lane
in the early morning hours of March 25, 1993.
Kelly argued that Stenson killed his wife for her life insurance policy and
killed Hoerner because he owed Hoerner money and exotic birds that he did not
Stenson maintained that Frank Hoerner shot Denise Stenson before committing
An autopsy showed that Hoerner was both shot and beaten.
In 2008, Stenson was days away from being executed on death row in Walla Walla
when new evidence prompted a judge to issue a stay of execution.
In May 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that Stenson's rights were
violated because the state suppressed photographs that raised questions about
mishandling of 1993 evidence.
One photograph showed an ungloved former Clallam County sheriff's detective
wearing Stenson's bloodstained jeans with the right pocket turned inside-out.
Stenson is serving his sentence at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla
(source: Peninsula Daily News)
10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask Someone Wrongfully Put on Death Row
In 1997, a 23-year-old Damon Thibodeaux was sentenced to death after being
convicted of raping and murdering his teenage step-cousin. Unfortunately, Damon
was innocent of these crimes and had been railroaded based on eyewitness
misidentification and a false, coerced confession. No physical evidence
actually linked him to the crime.
Thibodeaux spent a decade rotting on death row before his case was
reinvestigated. This time, with the help of the Innocence Project, holes were
poked in the eyewitness testimonies and confession, and DNA testing of evidence
- not used during the initial trial - showed that not only was it not
Thibodeaux's blood on the murder weapon, but also that no sexual assault had
occurred. In 2012, after 16 years of incarceration, Thibodeaux's was released
from prison with his conviction overturned.
VICE asked Thibodeaux about his life-changing ordeal and he was kind enough to
dredge up the past and answer the questions you've always had for someone
VICE: Did anyone surprise and/or hurt you by doubting your innocence? How did
that affect your relationship with them?
Damon Thibodeaux: Everyone was very supportive and that gave me strength. There
was a time, though, when I wanted to give up on my appeals and have the
sentence carried out because I didn't want to live like an animal in cage and,
at the time, I didn't see any way of proving that I did not commit this crime.
Were there ever moments where you doubted your own innocence?
There was never a moment when I doubted my innocence. I knew that I did not do
it. People who knew me and still know me had no doubts about it either.
Were you ever absolutely certain you were going to be executed for this crime
you didn't commit and, if so, how did that change you?
I did think that I would be executed at one time. I never thought in my life
that I would be in prison for something that I did not do, let alone on death
row for it. Like I said, I even wanted to give up my appeals. It changed me in
a way where I came face to face with my own mortality and the fact that at the
time I thought that I was going to be executed for something that I did not do.
How did the entire rollercoaster of events effect or change your religiosity or
thoughts about a higher power, if at all?
I do believe in God. Being on death row changes you spiritually. Whatever your
spiritual beliefs, you become more aware that someone or something else is in
control and not you.
What was the usual response inside the prison to you professing your innocence?
Did any inmates or staff believe you? Did you believe any of your fellow
inmates were also wrongfully convicted?
I do believe that there are others on death row and in prison for crimes that
they did not commit. You hear stories about this person or that person being
innocent but you don't dig into someone else's case just to make your own
judgement. I have had a guard or 2 tell me that I did not belong there, nor did
I fit in.
How did the other inmates treat you when the innocence project got on board and
it seemed like there might be a chance of your sentence being overturned?
When the Innocence Project took my case I thought it was just routine. Another
case to be handled. As time went on and their investigation got deeper I
started thinking that I just might get my freedom back. The other inmates were
supportive when they heard the Innocence Project was involved in my case.
Obviously, though, they would all like to have that level of representation.
Were there any positives you were able to take away from such an awful
experience and/or your time in prison?
The only positive that you can take from an experience like this is that it
makes you stronger. It reinforces the fact that you do not have complete
control of your life and that you can lose your life and freedom at any time,
even though you are innocent.
What are your feelings about the death penalty as a form of punishment now? If
you're fundamentally against it, is there any individual out there, prisoner or
not, that you think deserves it?
There was a time when I would have supported the death penalty for certain
crimes. But being on death row for 15 years for something that I did not do
made me see that we cannot administer this form of punishment fairly or safely.
I also don't think that we should have the power or authority to so easily take
another person's life. In today's society, we have the means and the ability to
punish criminals without killing them. When vengeance takes control, justice
can no longer be served. I think people make bad choices in life - some worse
than others - but how we react to those situations is a testament to who we are
as a society.
How has the government compensated you for their mistake and stealing years of
I have not been compensated. I don't know if they ever will compensate me. They
certainly can not give back what they have taken from me. The government is
slow to correct their own mistakes and make reparations to those that they
hurt, but quick to punish someone before they have all the facts.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when re-acclimating to normal life and
what do you feel like you missed out on by being incarcerated for that period
of your life?
When I was finally exonerated and released, the biggest things I had to face
was being social with other people because on death row there is no contact
with anyone. Being in a relationship with a partner was an everyday challenge
because you have to close yourself off emotionally. It's not easy having
relationships with people after having to close yourself up like that to
survive. I missed out on a lot of things in that time. I missed my son growing
up, the birth and passing of family members, and not being a part of their
lives. I missed the best earning potential of life. I will not be able to
retire when I get old. If there is no compensation, then I will have to work
the rest of my life.
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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