The Death Penalty Information Center has released a new report on race and the death penalty in Oklahoma, placing the state’s death penalty system in historical context. The report documents the role that race has played in Oklahoma’s death penalty and details the pervasive impact that racial discrimination continues to have in the administration of capital punishment. Deeply Rooted: How Racial History Informs Oklahoma’s Death Penalty, released October 14, 2022, notes that Oklahoma is at an “inflection point” in its administration of the death penalty and argues that “if the state is to establish a fair and humane system of justice, it is crucial to acknowledge and redress the effects of Jim Crow and racial violence that persist into the present day.”

The report ties Oklahoma’s use of the death penalty to its troubled history of mass racial violence and segregation. “To move towards true justice, Oklahoma must reckon with the harm that has already been inflicted by a criminal legal system in which race can determine who lives or dies,” Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, Founder and Executive Director of the Terence Crutcher Foundation, said. “To understand this history, we must recognize the generational trauma inflicted on so many in Black communities, those who have been victims of racialized violence, those who have lost family members to murder with no redress, and those who have had to stand by as the legal system takes the lives of their loved ones.”

Racial discrimination, especially the race of the victim, continues to infect all aspects of the death penalty in Oklahoma. A study of homicides in the state between 1990 and 2012 found that the odds a person charged with killing a white female victim would be sentenced to death were 10 times greater than if the victim was a minority male. Of the 25 executions scheduled between August 2022 and December 2024, 68% involve white victims. Data throughout the report suggest that Oklahoma has valued white victims more than others, which has resulted in disproportionate punishment for Black defendants convicted of murdering white people.

Deeply Rooted also discusses the state’s unique Native American history, with a particular focus on sovereignty and the carceral state. “Native American sovereignty has been central to many death penalty cases in Oklahoma,” the report says. “For more than a century, the state routinely violated its treaty obligations by prosecuting people in state court for crimes committed on Native American land. Since 1972, at least three Native American men have been executed by the state for crimes committed on tribal land.”

The Supreme Court’s holding in McGirt v. Oklahoma provided the state an opportunity to rectify their longstanding tradition of ignoring treaties between Native American nations and the federal government that have existed since the 1800s. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, however, has refused to apply McGirt v. Oklahoma (holding that the state lacked jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by or against Native American people on tribal lands) retroactively to at least four people on death row. Thirty-seven Native American men and women have been sentenced to death in Oklahoma, more than in any other state. 

The report also highlights the geographic arbitrariness of the death penalty in Oklahoma. Oklahoma County and Tulsa County rank fourth and sixth, respectively, for the most executions by any U.S. county over the past fifty years. No county outside of Texas is responsible for more executions than either Oklahoma County or Tulsa County. Death sentences imposed in these jurisdictions are also reversed at a high rate. The report found that half of all death sentences imposed in these counties between 1972 and January 1, 2021 have been reversed or resulted in a commutation or exoneration, “making a death sentence no more statistically reliable than a coin toss.” 

The report looks through the lens of the 25 people Oklahoma has scheduled for execution to spotlight systemic problems with the state’s death penalty. These issues include official misconduct by police and prosecutors; wrongful convictions; discrimination in jury selection; ineffective defense counsel; and the disproportionate use of capital punishment against individuals with chronic childhood trauma, brain damage, intellectual disabilities, and serious mental illness. The report notes that these “[s]ystemic issues … affect all capital defendants. However, the impact is skewed based on the race of defendant and victim, and the effects are particularly harsh on defendants of color.” 

Oklahoma has been aware of the many issues plaguing its death penalty system since 2017 when the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission released an extensive report detailing how the state’s system creates “unacceptable risks of inconsistent, discriminatory, and inhumane application of the death penalty.” The commission report provided 46 recommendations for improving the system and recommended a moratorium. Five years later, former Gov. Brad Henry and Judge Andy Lester, co-chairs of the bipartisan commission, say that Oklahoma has enacted “virtually none” of the reforms.

Commenting on the report, Brett Farley, state coordinator for Oklahoma Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty noted the commission’s conclusions and recommendations. That the state’s response has been “[a] frenzy of 25 executions is not conservative, not limited government, and not pro-life,” he said.


Tiana Herring, Deeply Rooted: How Racial History Informs Oklahoma’s Death Penalty, Death Penalty Information Center, October 142022.

Read DPIC’s news release about the report and Ten Facts You Should Know About Oklahoma’s Death Penalty Administration.