Oklahoma is scheduled to execute Michael Smith on April 4, the state’s first execution of 2024. Convicted in 2003 for the separate 2002 murders of Janet Moore and Sharath Babu Pulluru in Oklahoma County, Mr. Smith has spent the last 21 years on death row. Following his arrest, Mr. Smith confessed to his involvement in these killings to the police, but now says that he “was high on drugs” during his interrogation and does not “even remember getting arrested.”

On March 6, 2024, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board held a clemency hearing for Mr. Smith at which his attorneys told the board about his intellectual disability and years of drug abuse that further impaired his mental ability. They also highlighted doubts surrounding his involvement in the murders. Mark Henricksen, one of Mr. Smith’s current attorneys, told the board that if his trial counsel had properly represented him and introduced evidence of his intellectual disability, he likely would not be eligible for execution. However, attorneys for the state disagreed, arguing that Mr. Smith continues to present a threat to others, particularly noting a 2019 infraction in which Mr. Smith was found in possession of a weapon. Ultimately, the Board voted 4-1 denying clemency for Mr. Smith, paving the way for his execution by lethal injection. In a statement following the Board’s vote, Attorney General Gentner Drummond said that he is “pleased the Pardon and Parole Board denied clemency for the ruthless killer who took Janet Moore and Sharath Pulluru away from their families. Justice will finally be served for their tragic loss.”

Following the board’s denial, family members of Mr. Smith and anti-death penalty advocates announced at a press conference that new claims from a state’s witness could raise enough doubt to warrant a stay of execution. They also told the press that there is DNA evidence that the state has not tested that could also raise doubts about Mr. Smith’s involvement. “We’re asking the governor, ‘Please have a heart. Please understand that this is a human’s life you’re taking,” said Nicole Smith, Mr. Smith’s sister-in-law. A private investigator working on Mr. Smith’s case also told the press that “there’s a whole slew of problems with this case that have not been recognized or properly examined.” On April 2, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) denied an emergency stay of execution for Mr. Smith, based on the claim that untested forensic evidence might undermine his conviction. The court wrote that Mr. Smith “gave a very detailed, highly corroborated confession to police,” and his confession was corroborated by “two additional confessions and physical evidence from both crime scenes.” The OCCA held that it did not believe further forensic testing would undermine the integrity of Mr. Smith’s conviction.

Mr. Smith’s scheduled execution comes just days after AG Drummond asked the OCCA to further delay the time between executions. AG Drummond previously asked the Court to require 60 days but is now asking for 90 days between scheduled executions, citing the emotional and mental trauma on correctional staff as a reason. In 2021, the OCCA scheduled executions for 25 prisoners in under three years, which would have cut the state’s death row population by 58%. The Attorney General’s Office and Department of Corrections believe that providing additional time between executions “would combat trauma, staffing shortages, and ensure the state doesn’t have another botched execution.” They added that the current pace of executions is not sustainable. During a hearing to discuss these potential changes, OCCA Judge Gary Lumpkin told officials that the correctional staff tasked with carrying out executions need to “suck it up” and “man up.” Judge Lumpkin told AG Drummond that he does not believe the “sympathy stuff.” “We set a reasonable amount of time to start this out, and y’all keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it,” Judge Lumpkin added. “Who’s to say next month you won’t come in and say I need 120 days? This stuff needs to stop, and people need to suck it up, realize they have a hard job to do, and get it done in a timely, proficient manner.”

Judge Lumpkin told AG Drummond that 30 days is “more than enough time” between scheduled executions, but AG Drummond cited concerns with botched executions if the state was to maintain that pace. “I do not want, as chief law officer, to oversee a failed execution. I am present with every execution. I look the defendant in the eye as he dies. I look the men and women that administer those lethal injections in the eye after they’ve administered it, and I have sympathy for the strain on them.” AG Drummond’s office also asked the OCCA to set execution dates for six more men on death row: Richard Rojem, Emmanuel Littlejohn, Kevin Underwood, Wendell Grissom, Tremane Wood, and Kendrick Simpson.