As Texas Prepares for First Execution of 2020, Oklahoma Marks Five Years with No Executions

As Texas prepared to carry out the first execution of 2020 on January 15, neighboring Oklahoma — once the second most prolific executioner in the United States — marked five years since its last execution. The states present a contrast in execution practices. Though the use of the death penalty has sharply declined in both states, Texas continues to lead the nation in executions, while Oklahoma will join the nearly two-thirds of death-penalty states (18 of 29) that have not carried out any executions in at least five years.

Texas executed John Gardner (pictured) for the 2005 murder of his estranged wife, shortly before their divorce was to be finalized. On January 13, 2020, the Supreme Court declined to review Gardner’s claim that his trial lawyer had been ineffective for failing to present an “abandonment rage” defense to the murder charges. Gardner will be the 568th prisoner executed by Texas since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld its capital punishment statute in 1976, by far the most of any state. Texas carried out more executions than any other state in 2018 (13) and 2019 (9), and already has eight executions scheduled through May 2020.

By contrast, Oklahoma — whose 112 executions are the third most of any state — shows no signs of resuming executions any time soon. Representatives of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the state attorney general, and Gov. Kevin Stitt all told Frontier editor-in-chief Dylan Goforth that they remained in discussions for resuming executions but had no timetable for when that might occur.

Oklahoma’s last three execution attempts have been botched or bungled. On April 29, 2014, the state botched the execution of Clayton Lockett, in a scene the warden later described as “a bloody mess.” After 16 failed attempts to set an IV line, one of Lockett’s veins exploded. Lockett died 45 minutes into the procedure of what was described at the time as a massive heart attack. Five years ago, on January 15, 2015, the state executed Charles Warner using an unauthorized drug, potassium acetate, in place of potassium chloride, the third drug required in Oklahoma’s lethal-injection protocol. Potassium acetate is sometimes used by airports to de-ice the wings of planes. Warner’s final words were “my body is on fire.” Oklahoma’s last attempted execution was in September 2015, when the state halted the scheduled execution of Richard Glossip after prison officials became aware two hours before the execution that they once again had obtained the wrong drug.

In 2016, an Oklahoma grand jury issued a scathing report detailing “blatant violations” of the state’s execution protocol. The violations, the report found, occurred at virtually every stage of the execution process and involved numerous members of the execution team, including the Director of the Department of Corrections and the warden at the prison where the execution took place.

As part of an agreement in a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s execution procedures, Oklahoma may not seek execution dates for at least five months after a new execution protocol is adopted. In 2018, the state announced plans to use nitrogen gas, rather than lethal injection, in executions, but no official protocol has been adopted.

Although Texas remains the most prolific state by number of executions, even it has seen an erosion of capital punishment. Executions have declined from 35 in 1999 and 40 in 2000 fewer than ten in three of the last four years.

The decline in new death sentences in Texas has been even more dramatic. New death sentences peaked in Texas in the mid- to late-1990s, averaging 39.2 per year from 1994 through 1999. By contrast, the entire United States averaged 39.2 death sentences per year in the five years spanning 2015-2019 and Texas imposed a total of 21 new death sentences — an average of 4.2 per year — in that time period. In 2019, eight juries faced a choice to sentence a defendant to death or life without parole and half chose to impose life sentences. The four death sentences imposed in 2019 represented a 92% decline from the 48 people Texas sentenced to death in 1999.