OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — After a six-year moratorium on the death penalty following a series of botched lethal injections, Oklahoma officials announced in August they would seek execution dates for seven condemned men . By the next month, their executions were scheduled, leading some death penalty supporters to believe the state's executions would resume posthaste.
But what was once one of the nation’s busiest death chambers has not resumed administering capital punishment as easily as some had hoped after Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt on Thursday stopped Julius Jones from being executed hours before he was scheduled to die.
The governor's decision followed widespread outcry over doubts raised by his defense. Celebrity supporters including Kim Kardashian West had advocated on Jones' behalf, and Oklahoma high school students walked out of their classrooms this week in protest of his planned execution.
Stitt's offer of clemency — commuting Jones' sentence from death to life in prison without the possibility of parole — came just weeks after criticism and questions about the state's three-drug execution protocol were renewed following the Oct. 28 execution of John Marion Grant, who convulsed and vomited as he received midazolam, the first of the three drugs.
And earlier this week, members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on Wednesday voted 3-2 to recommend clemency for death row inmate Bigler Stouffer II — not because of doubt over his guilt, but over concerns about the state’s execution methods.
State Rep. Jim Olsen said Friday that he supports the death penalty and that he had hoped executions would resume in Oklahoma. The Republican — who was criticized by Democrats this year for comparing efforts to end abortion to the fight against slavery — said he was disappointed in Stitt's decision on the Jones case, although he did not directly criticize the governor.
“I think it gives us a more permissive climate to commit murder,” Olsen said. “It’s obviously a very difficult position to be in. I don’t think anyone would say, ‘I wish I was the governor and had to decide this.’"
Olsen is not hopeful for the future of executions.
“This is probably the end of the death penalty in the state of Oklahoma,” he said.
Stitt has not said publicly why he agreed to commute Jones’ death sentence, and he has not commented on the parole board’s recommendation to commute Stouffer’s sentence.
“He supports the death penalty, but he considers (commutations) on a case-by-case basis,” said Stitt spokesperson Carly Atchison. “The conditions of (Jones’) commutation, that he will never be eligible for pardon or parole,” was key to Stitt’s decision, Atchison said.
An attorney for Jones did not immediately return a phone call for comment on plans for future legal action.
Don Heath, chairman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Jones’ options appear to be limited.
“I think he has exhausted his appeals. Only if new evidence comes forward can he appeal,” Heath said. “I don’t think you can appeal a mercy decision, a clemency decision.”
Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s lethal injection protocols is set for trial in February. The lawsuit argues that the three-drug method risks causing unconstitutional pain and suffering.
Heath said Stitt “needs to stay all executions” until after the trial.
But Heath is less sure than Olsen about whether executions have effectively ended in Oklahoma.
“I hope that’s the case,“ Heath said. “I haven’t seen any indication from Gov. Stitt that this is the case” because of Stitt’s support of the death penalty, he said.