After failing to cleanly execute Clayton Lockett in 2014 (whose death took 45 minutes of seizures and a fatal heart attack) and using the wrong drugs to execute Charles Warner, the state of Oklahoma has begun to rethink its stance on the death penalty. State Question 776 is up for a vote in November. The Question proposes an amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution in Section 9A of Article 2. A “yes” vote allows Oklahoma to use any death penalty method that is not banned in the United States Constitution to execute prisoners, should the current method become untenable or illegal. Death penalties will not be pardoned if a method is deemed unacceptable. Instead, death row inmates will continue to be held until a new method of execution is approved. Most notably, the death penalty cannot be considered “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Oklahoma Constitution should the measure pass.
To those who are pro-death penalty, State Question 776 makes sense. A “yes” vote supports Oklahoma’s bid to be the first state to sanction the death penalty within their constitution. The process for executions is given clarity and directives should problems like those suffered by Lockett and Warner arise. Moreover, it is unlikely that the death penalty will be abolished in the near future. Voting to update death penalty laws can only help the limit the amount of bureaucratic headaches that executioners, the courts and the inmates themselves have to deal with.
Anti-death penalty groups, however, have responded with a resounding “no” vote. The Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) argues that to constitutionalize the death penalty in the form that Question 776 proposes would allow the government too much power. The “no” argument believes that by exempting the death penalty from being considered cruel and unusual punishment, Question 776 will allow the death penalty to be used with little oversight and without the caution that it is used with now.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, if you need to split hairs in order to figure out whether or not you should kill someone, the answer is probably “No, do not do that.” Morally, execution might be right or wrong, but I don’t necessarily trust every jury to make that decision. I cannot, in good faith, support every decision made in the name of the death penalty. I cannot be sure that the people condemned to death deserve to die, were guilty of their crimes or that each crime given the death penalty deserves the death penalty by any common standard. Amnesty International reports that 151 inmates, just under 2% of those sentenced to death, have been exonerated or their crimes while on death row. The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims the number of innocent death row inmates may be closer to 4.1%
Financially, the elimination of the death penalty could, if not save our public schools, at least help them out (if the government ever wanted to make public school funding a priority). Death penalty cases cost more money than the cases of those sentenced to life without parole. The problem is that the state must pay for lawyers and judges for each appeal given to death row inmates, as well as their room and board. Death row inmates drain the state of valuable resources. According to research done by non-profit organization Death Penalty Information Center, it costs several times more to execute an inmate than to keep the inmate in prison for life. Millions of dollars are allotted each year to keeping prisoners alive and legally equipped in the hopes that they’ll be killed in the near future.
Pragmatically, the death penalty does not appear to benefit anything other than people looking for closure. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2014, found that the average wait time from sentencing to execution has risen to 16.5 years. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a 2009 study found that the majority of leading criminologists find the death penalty does not act as a deterrent for murders. Another 2009 study reported that “police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime.” A 2015 Pew Research study found that a majority of Americans also doubt that the death penalty “deters serious crime.”
By voting “no” on State Question 776, voters would prevent the long-term acceptance of the death penalty in Oklahoma. Voting against this message would not stop the death penalty’s use, but it would make the fight to end the death penalty easier beyond November’s ballot. The results of an execution happen regardless of the method. Should you feel in your heart that the death penalty truly benefits society more than sentencing prisoners to life without parole, I encourage you to vote yes on Question 776. If, however, you’re wavering about whether or not you support the death penalty, or you agree that the money spent on prisoners waiting to die is ridiculous, a “no” vote serves your interests perfectly.
Should State Question 776 be struck down at the polls, voters can look to their local officials, largely House Representatives and Senators, to begin work on striking down the death penalty in Oklahoma. Oklahoma would join 19 other states in disavowing the death penalty, a nationwide trend that mirrors declining support for lethal punishment in polls. State Question 776 is a place to start, and you can begin that journey this November 8th at the polls. As ever, your local political science writer hopes you’ll vote regardless of which side of the issue you believe in.