Death Penalty: Yes
Oklahoma had a question on the November 2016 ballot concerning "constitutionalizing" the state's death penalty and removing the authority of the state courts to declare it to constitute cruel and unusual punishment or a violation of any provision of the state constitution. The measure passed, 66% - 34%. For more on the ballot question, see Ballotpedia, Oklahoma Death Penalty, State Question 776 (2016).
Old Maid's Head. Photo by NSBP.
In Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executions of offenders age fifteen and younger at the time of their crimes are unconstitutional.
Curtis McCarty was released in May 2007 after District Court Judge Twyla Mason Gray ordered that the charges against him be dismissed. McCarty had spent the last 22 years behind bars for the murder of a police officer’s daughter in 1982. Judge Gray ruled that the case against McCarty was tainted by the questionable testimony of former police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, who gave improper expert testimony about semen and hair evidence during McCarty's trial. Gilchrist falsely testified that hairs and other biological evidence showed that McCarty could have been the killer. In Gilchrist’s original notes, she said that hairs from the crime scene did not match McCarty. She then changed her notes to say the hairs did match him. When the defense requested retesting, the hairs were lost. A judge has said Gilchrist either destroyed or willfully lost the hairs. DNA testing in recent years has also shown that another person raped the victim.
Clifford Henry Bowen was incarcerated in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary under three death sentences for over five years before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit overturned his conviction in 1986. The Court held that prosecutors in the case failed to disclose information about another suspect, Lee Crowe, and that had the defense known of the Crowe materials, the result of the trial would probably have been different. Crowe resembled Bowen, had greater motive, no alibi, and habitually carried the same gun and unusual ammunition as the murder weapon. Bowen, on the other hand, maintained his innocence, provided twelve alibi witnesses to confirm that he was 300 miles from the crime scene just one hour prior to the crime, and could not be linked by any physical evidence to the crime.
Eight other death row inmates have also been exonerated in Oklahoma.
Governor Lee Cruce commuted every death sentence imposed during his administration (1911-1915).
Phillip Dewitt Smith's death sentence was commuted in 2001 by Gov. Francis A. Keating due to doubts about Smith's guilt.
Governor Brad Henry commuted the death sentence of Osvaldo Torres to life without parole on May 13, 2004. Henry said that it was "important to remember that the actual shooter in these horrific murders was also sentenced to death and faces execution." Henry also stated that he "concluded that there is a possibility a significant miscarriage of justice occurred... specifically that the violation of his Vienna Convention rights contributed to trial counsel's ineffectiveness, that the jury did not hear significant evidence, and that the result of the trial is unreliable." Henry's decision followed a recommendation for clemency by the Pardon and Parole Board and a stay granted by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. The International Court of Justice had ruled that the Vienna Convention rights of Torres and 50 other Mexican nationals on America's death rows were violated. Under the Vienna Convention, foreign citizens arrested in the United States are entitled to contact their consulate for assistance.
Following the recommendation of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, Gov. Brad Henry granted clemency to Kevin Young in 2008, commuting his death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Board's recommendation of clemency was based on several factors, including the disproportionality of the punishment, questionable witnesses, and a decision during the original trial to turn down a plea bargain that would have resulted in a life sentence.
In 2010, Governor Brad Henry commuted the sentence of Richard Tandy Smith to life without the possibility of parole as recommended by the State Pardon and Parole Board. Life without parole was not available at the time of Smith's sentencing. The governor believed life without parole would be the more appropriate sentence.
Other interesting facts
In the modern era (since 1976), Oklahoma has the highest number of executions per capita.
Oklahoma was the first state and the first jurisdiction in the world to adopt lethal injection as its method of execution in 1977. On December 16, 2010, Oklahoma became the first American state to use pentobarbital in the execution of John David Duty.