US state of Oklahoma to vote on death penalty

Campaigners urge a resident to vote "no" on a referendum that would enshrine the death penalty in Oklahoma's state constitution (AFP Photo/Bobby Ross Jr.)
Campaigners urge a resident to vote "no" on a referendum that would enshrine the death penalty in Oklahoma's state constitution (AFP Photo/Bobby Ross Jr.)
Ross Jr.

Oklahoma City (AFP) - This November, voters in the state of Oklahoma will not only help choose the next US president, but also decide a ballot measure with big implications for the future of the death penalty.

Capital punishment is on hold in the southwestern state after a series of botched executions. With lethal injection drugs becoming harder to acquire, there are doubts whether Oklahoma can resume executions unless a new method is approved.

The ballot measure, known as State Question 776, aims to head off any attempts to end capital punishment by asking voters to enshrine it in the state constitution and empower legislators to decide the best method of execution.

"We're allowing the people, who overwhelmingly favor the death penalty in Oklahoma, to show certain entities that they want this," said state representative Mike Ritze, an Oklahoma Republican who was one of the proposal's authors.

The measure is expected to pass on November 8, enjoying over 70 percent support according to a June poll.

But there have been a lot of questions raised in the last several years over the state's death penalty.

- Shifting beliefs? -

Since the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Oklahoma has executed 112 people, the most per-capita of any state and second overall only to Texas' 538, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Executions in Oklahoma came to a screeching halt in 2015, after a series of blunders.

The most serious was in 2014, when the lethal injection execution of Clayton Lockett left him writhing in pain, due to an improperly placed intravenous tube. There were two subsequent instances of mix-ups involving drugs used in lethal injections.

The state's attorney general, Scott Pruitt, temporarily halted executions while the Corrections Department, under new leadership, reviews its failures and establishes new protocols.

The question now is whether voters are becoming more willing to consider alternatives to the death penalty in the staunchly Republican, Bible Belt state.

Death penalty opponents are hopeful that voters are shifting their beliefs, because another summer poll found 53 percent of Oklahomans would approve getting rid of executions, if those sentenced to death were instead given life in prison without the possibility of parole.

- Barometer -

Decreasing support for the death penalty "is the national direction," said Abraham Bonowitz, an opponent of capital punishment who is organizing the opposition to Oklahoma's ballot initiative. He believes the November election can be an important barometer.

"If we can do our small part in Oklahoma by simply making sure that the vote is not as popular as the proponents of State Question 776 expect it to be, then that demonstrates less support," said Bonowitz, who lives in Columbus, Ohio.

The ballot measure comes at a time when 36 US states have paused executions, or stopped them altogether, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

This November, a ballot measure in California -- which has 741 death row inmates -- might end the practice in that state. Conversely, Nebraska voters will decide whether to restore the death penalty.

A key factor is the pharmaceutical industry's mounting opposition to supplying lethal injection drugs, causing a supply shortage.

States have considered a range of alternatives, from firing squads in Utah to electrocution in Tennessee, said Amber Widgery, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Oklahoma is considering execution by nitrogen gas, but the broader question about capital punishment is being discussed along religious lines.

- 'God allows us to judge' -

"In Oklahoma, we're basically a very faith-based, biblically orientated people," said Ritze, a family physician and Southern Baptist deacon who has served as an execution witness.

"I think we realize that God allows us to judge actions."

But Connie Johnson, a former state senator and longtime member of the Church of the Living God, a Pentecostal congregation, sees it differently.

"God forgave us for our sins," said Johnson. She herself says she forgave the man who killed her brother in 1981.

Johnson leads a group against the ballot proposal, which she believes would circumvent traditional checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government by undermining the role of the courts to interpret Oklahoma law.

Some religious leaders, including the state's top Roman Catholic clergyman, have come out in opposition to the measure.

"Today we have non-lethal means to punish offenders and protect people's safety," Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley said in a statement.

"The debate should not be 'how' to kill those who commit heinous crimes but whether we 'should.'"

If the ballot measure passes, Oklahoma would become the fourth state to put support for capital punishment in its state constitution, joining California, Oregon and Florida, according to Bonowitz.