About the Commission

The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission came together shortly after the state imposed a suspension on executions in October 2015. The moratorium was imposed at the request of the Oklahoma Attorney General to allow for a grand jury investigation of Oklahoma’s execution protocol. In May 2016, the grand jury issued a highly critical report and exposed a number of deeply troubling failures in Oklahoma’s execution process. Notably, the grand jury report concluded that “justice has been delayed for the victims’ families and the citizens of Oklahoma, and confidence further shaken in the ability of this State to carry out the death penalty.”

The Commission—understanding that the decision to impose the death penalty begins well before the execution—has spent over a year studying virtually all aspects of Oklahoma’s death penalty, from initial arrest and interrogation through the execution stage. The Commissioners are eleven Oklahomans of diverse backgrounds, representing both urban and rural communities. They are Republicans and Democrats, prosecutors and defense attorneys, individuals who have served in each of the three branches of government, law school professors and law school deans, victims’ advocates and advocates for Native Americans. The Commission is chaired by three prominent bipartisan leaders and experienced stakeholders in Oklahoma’s government: former Governor Brad Henry, former Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Reta Strubhar, and former U.S. Magistrate Judge Andy Lester. The Commission includes both supporters and opponents of the death penalty who have come together because their commitment to justice and fairness trumps their political and ideological differences.

The Process

The Commissioners conducted an independent, fact-based, research-driven examination of Oklahoma’s death penalty process. The Commission met for ten full-day meetings and convened numerous conference calls over the last year to develop its nearly 300-page report. Commissioners gathered data, reviewed scholarly articles, commissioned independent studies, and conducted interviews. They met with a long list of Oklahomans, including those with expertise in and firsthand knowledge of the state’s capital punishment system. Those individuals included district attorneys and other law enforcement officials, defense attorneys, legislators, victims’ advocates, family members of those wrongfully convicted, judges, and representatives from the Department of Corrections, the Office of the Governor, and the Office of the Attorney General.

Why Now?

Oklahoma’s death penalty system and its execution protocol have come under increased scrutiny in the last few years. In October of 2015, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals—at the request of the Attorney General—issued an indefinite stay of all scheduled executions to allow for a grand jury investigation of the state’s execution process. The May 2016 grand jury report examined why the wrong drug was used in the January 2015 execution of Charles Warner, and then nearly used again in the scheduled execution of Richard Glossip.

But some criminal justice stakeholders in Oklahoma have also raised concerns about the integrity and fairness of the state’s death penalty process, citing problems that commence long before the execution process itself. These concerns are of particular interest—as Oklahoma carries out more executions per capita than any other state in the country—and include wrongful convictions, disproportionate application of the death penalty within the state, and lack of resources to ensure access to effective counsel for those facing the ultimate punishment.

In response to the stay and the grand jury report, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections is revising its execution protocol. While this is an important step forward, many steps in Oklahoma’s capital punishment process had been subjected to little examination. Commissioners came together to conduct an independent review of all phases of the death penalty in Oklahoma and, in issuing its report, aims to provide Oklahomans with the information and resources necessary to make informed judgments about the state’s death penalty system.