Oklahoma plans to execute a person a month for the next two years, starting today. We get an update from Connie Johnson, former state senator and murder victim family member with the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and speak with world-renowned anti-death-penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean. “Our death penalty is broken. It always was from the beginning,” Prejean tells Democracy Now! “I recognize that this is torture and an abuse of human rights. In time, with our help, as we continue to get the word out, the American people are going to see that, too. And we are going to end this thing.” Oklahoma has a history of botched executions, wrongful convictions and prosecution misconduct. “We get it wrong here often,” says Johnson. “We don’t want anyone executed.”
[Editor’s Note: After we broadcast, the state of Oklahoma executed James Coddington and at 10:16 a.m. he was pronounced dead by lethal injection.]
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.
In Oklahoma, Republican Governor Kevin Stitt has ordered the execution of James Coddington to go forward today, despite a vote by the state’s Pardon and Parole Board to grant him clemency. This marks Oklahoma’s fifth execution since October, when it resumed the death penalty after putting it on hold in 2015 after prison officials botched an execution by using the wrong lethal drug. Coddington is the first of 25 Oklahoma men scheduled to die over the next two years. Many suffer severe mental illness, had trials marked by racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct. After Coddington, the state had planned to execute Richard Glossip, but the governor delayed his death until December so an appellate court can consider new evidence that supports his longtime claim of innocence. So, Oklahoma next plans to kill Benjamin Cole, diagnosed with schizophrenia and catatonia.
In a minute, we’ll go to Oklahoma City, but first we turn to one of the world’s most well-known anti-death-penalty activists, Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. She spoke to Democracy Now! Tuesday night about Oklahoma’s scheduled execution spree.
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN: We have a terrible situation going on now. All the killings have been terrible, by the state, of human beings. But we have a man right now, James Coddington, who’s in the torture chamber — it’s an all-stone chamber — in Oklahoma, where he was put 35 days ago to await his coming execution. He can hear right next door as yesterday they did a mock execution. He could hear everything going on. He has bright lights on him 24 hours a day. He has three video cameras trained on him. His phone has been taken away from him, and he’s been removed from companionship of all of his people on death row, awaiting his death.
We in the United States have a Supreme Court, cannot read the words — they cannot interpret the words in the Eighth Amendment about not punishing people with cruel punishment. They have not been able to recognize the torture that happens to conscious, imaginative human beings put in a tiny cell, as big as a small bathroom, 20 years or more to await their killing at the hands of the state.
James Coddington awaits his death tomorrow at 10:00 in the morning. And he follows a whole number of people — 113 — that Oklahoma has killed. Why is it that at this time the attorney general of the state felt that he could schedule 25 human beings to be killed over the next two years, roughly one a month? Why did he feel he could do that? What is behind his doing that?
We have this way that the Supreme Court has set up the death penalty that they give discretionary power, complete discretionary power, to prosecutors to seek death or not. It’s in the hands of a frail individual, biased, politically driven human beings, to decide if people die or not. I think the AG of Oklahoma is aping what former President Trump did with his attorney general, William Barr, when he announced he was going to kill 13 people on federal death row before he left office. There had been 17 years, had been no federal executions. How did those 13 human beings suddenly get word that they were going to be killed, and within six months? And indeed they were. They were all killed. Why? Because the one in charge, the one with the power to prosecute, decided, for whatever reasons, political reasons, whatever reasons, that they were going to die.
When the Supreme Court set up the death penalty, it had default lines in it from the beginning. It was bound to fail, that we would have these pockets of prosecution arbitrarily happening around the country, as has continued today. First they put in impossible criteria, supposedly to set a guideline, to narrow it down for juries not to give the death penalty for what they called ordinary murders — who knows what that means? — only for the worst of the worst, and coupled it with this discretionary power of prosecutors. We see it happening in Oklahoma now. …
Our death penalty is broken. It always was, from the beginning. It can never be fair. The courts are clogged. I know a woman who on death row in California waited 19 years before the Supreme Court even reviewed her case. We have a million reasons why we have to stop this thing. …
I hold in my heart tonight James Coddington, in that stone cell, awaiting his death tomorrow. I recognize that this is torture and an abuse of human rights. In time, with our help, as we continue to get the word out, the American people are going to see that, too, and we are going to end this thing.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the world-renowned anti-death-penalty activist, Sister Helen Prejean, speaking to us from New Orleans last night.
For more, we go to Oklahoma City, where protests are underway ahead of today’s execution, scheduled 10 a.m. local time, the first of 25 executions set to take place nearly every month for the next two years, what’s been described as a mass scheduling of executions. We’re joined by Connie Johnson, retired Oklahoma state senator, on the board of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She herself lost a family member. Her brother was murdered in 1981.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Connie Johnson. Thanks so much for joining us. Talk about the planned execution today. Tell us who Coddington is. And, I mean, you have the former director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Justin Jones, clergy, Democrats, Republicans, all demanding that his execution be stopped, but Kevin Stitt, the governor, has denied his clemency. Tell us the story and why.
CONNIE JOHNSON: Good morning. And thank you so much for having me.
Yes, we are in that space where James Coddington clearly murdered someone, and, however, during his time of incarceration, he has been a redeeming individual. You know, he’s been a role model to so many. And based on that reality, he and his attorneys have requested mercy, basically. We have a Pardon and Parole Board that is very uniquely composed in terms of the number of law enforcement field representatives there. And three to two, a guy who would never normally vote for clemency, believed that James Coddington deserves mercy. So this is an issue of mercy. And Justin Jones, a friend of mine, I was glad to hear him speak out as a warden — I mean, as a director of corrections who had to oversee executions in Oklahoma. Our history of botched executions, and certainly our history of wrongful convictions, like Sister Helen said, gives great pause for concern.
So, I, myself, my family are family members of a murder victim. And the opportunity to have this person who killed my brother in 1981 at Langston University, Oklahoma’s only HBCU — give a shoutout — the guy was not even convicted, let alone given the death penalty. But there was an option given to me of the streets taking him down. And I couldn’t say yes, because it wouldn’t bring my brother back. Fast-forward 20 years, I went through a process with Families of Murdered Children in Tulsa, Oklahoma, whereby I forgave the guy, Darren Smith of the Bahamas, who killed my brother. I hope to meet him again one day. But it gave my heart freedom.
And I don’t know about the rest of my family, but at that point my life took off. I became a state senator. I introduced legislation to abolish the death penalty, just believing and knowing and understanding that it costs more to kill someone, that in Oklahoma it’s racially, geographically and economically discriminatory. We get it wrong here often. I helped to exonerate two people from death row. And we also have, like she said, severe cases of prosecutorial misconduct, and then the botched executions. We had a moratorium for a while on executions. And then I think three people were executed, and in two cases, the cases of the two Black guys who were executed, the drugs, something went horribly wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell us who Richard Glossip is? He has faced one execution warrant after another. He continues to say that he is innocent. What about this case? A whole television series has been made about his case.
CONNIE JOHNSON: Sure. I think, to talk about all of the cases in Oklahoma, you have to talk about the elected officials and, like Sister Helen referenced, the political aspects behind these death penalty cases. We had a DA named Bob Macy, who was known as “the hanging DA,” or whatever, but known for prosecuting people and getting convictions. We’ve had candidates for governor who oversaw 34 executions, you know, and these were Democratic candidates for governor. So the political aspects of this is real.
But for most of Oklahoma, it’s a matter of lack of education. As an advocate, again, I was chair of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty at the time Richard Glossip’s case originally came to light. And the DA at that time, David Prater, you know, like I said, was politically motivated. And so, Mr. Glossip has been able to escape execution. It was interesting that the governor granted a temporary stay, interestingly, until after the election. But, you know — and Oklahoma is a pro-death-penalty state. We, in 2016, put it in the Constitution. I led the campaign to keep it out of the Constitution. And we were predicted to lose by 75-25, but through a process of education, like I said, about the reasons that the death penalty doesn’t work, we were able to make that margin 68 to 32. I think the recent Julius Jones case raised a lot of awareness, and the efforts of movie stars and local personalities, like Jabee Williams, really put that case on the forefront. And I believe we have even fewer people who support the death penalty now. I would be in support of floating a question one more time to take the death penalty out of the Constitution.
But the political implications of cases like Richard Glossip, who did, in fact, claim — he still claims his innocence. Prosecutorial misconduct, withholding information, everything that could possibly lead to a wrongful conviction, I believe, applied in Mr. Glossip’s case. So, I just think the contrast between what the governor has done for Mr. Glossip, how he’s approving or how he’s going ahead with Mr. Coddington’s execution, those things are all — they have to have a political backdrop.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the Oklahoma death row prisoner James Coddington, set to be executed today, in his own words. Here he’s pleading to the Pardon and Parole Board earlier in the month.
JAMES CODDINGTON: I choose to try to help, in any way I can, to keep the younger guys that are coming in from — to making the mistakes that I made when I was first young and in here. And like Ms. Hunt said, I had a lot of misconducts when I was in my teenage years here. I haven’t — 25 years, I’ve had one. And there’s a reason for it. …
I can’t apologize enough for what I did. And for someone to say I don’t care and that I had no remorse is the only thing that I have to say is not true, because I’ve never forgot Al. He was one of my friends, and he tried his best to help me, anytime I needed it. And for that, he lost his life. Everything my attorney has told y’all about me today is me. If I deserve to live, it’s in y’all’s hands. If I don’t, it’s also in your hands. That’s about all I can say. I don’t know what else to say.
AMY GOODMAN: That was James Coddington’s plea to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, which would later vote three to two recommending Coddington be granted clemency by Governor Kevin Stitt, which he denied this week. As we wrap up, 25 men are slated to be killed, one a month for the next two years. Connie Johnson, your final thoughts?
CONNIE JOHNSON: Yes. I hadn’t heard Mr. Coddington’s conversation. And it reveals the trauma that’s at the base of so much that’s wrong in Oklahoma. And clearly, we are just calling for mercy. I want to be clear that the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the Death Penalty Alliance, of which I’m also an affiliate member, we don’t want anyone executed. And what’s going to happen today, what appears to going to happen today, is not in our best interest as a state. I don’t want the state of Oklahoma, I don’t want Governor Kevin Stitt murdering James Coddington in my name.
And we’ll keep our fight going. I think the fact that you’ll see displays of 25 crosses here in Oklahoma City — there will be vigils. I have one this morning at 9:00 with the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. And certainly over the course of these next potential 25 executions, the voices of Oklahomans will start to be heard better. And I, as one, under my company, Advocacy Works, will be right out there on the frontlines. So, I appreciate the opportunity.
AMY GOODMAN: Connie Johnson, I want to thank you so much for being with us, retired Oklahoma state senator, former chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Coming up, we look at how an ultrasecretive Chicago industrialist has quietly given $1.6 billion to the architect of the right-wing takeover of the courts, the largest known political advocacy donation in U.S. history. Back in less than 30 seconds.