Oklahoma's execution practices were under the national spotlight when the 2015 legislative session began. A few weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging the state’s three-drug lethal injection cocktail, Oklahoma state Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, introduced Senate Joint Resolution 31.
'A necessary amendment'
Sykes did not respond to KGOU’s requests for an interview. But in March 2015, Sykes told lawmakers his measure was designed to enshrine the death penalty into the state constitution.
“I feel this is a necessary amendment to our Constitution to number one, establish that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual punishment, to number two, to make it clear that the legislature has the authority to alter those death penalty statutes, and to also ensure that, if a method of execution is declared unconstitutional, then the sentence can still be carried out by another method,” Sykes said during the legislative session.
House author Mike Christian, R-Oklahoma City, also failed to return interview requests, but on the House floor, the lawmaker said the issue deserved a popular vote.
“Something as important and serious as capital punishment, (Sykes and I) think the people of Oklahoma should be involved, instead of just the legislature. It’s probably the most serious issue we could deal with as the legislature,” Christian said.
Both the state House and Senate approved the resolution, and voters will see its language as State Question 776 in November. It’s one of three criminal justice questions on the ballot.
State Question 776 is not a referendum on the death penalty itself. Regardless of the outcome, executions could still occur in the state.
A 'swift' solution
Robert Dunham is the executive director for the Death Penalty Information Center. Dunham calls the measure an emotional reaction to the Supreme Court lethal injection case.
“Proponents of the death penalty felt that it was under siege and this was a swift but not well thought out reaction to the possibility that Oklahoma could be without a death penalty if its method of carrying it out was declared unconstitutional,” Dunham says.
State Question 776 says the death penalty does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment or violate any other part of the state constitution. Dunham says the referendum would strip those condemned to death of Constitutional rights, including their protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
“That strikes me and many other observers as violating the federal Constitution’s right to equal protection,” Dunham says. “And states are free to provide rights to defendants but states are not free to discriminate between classes of individuals and say that some have some rights and others have other rights.”
Potentially pricey proposal
“The death penalty is obviously kind of litigious program as is and this is going to give more options for I'm sure appeals and lawsuits,” Marc Hyden from Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty says.
Hyden argues the measure inevitably lends itself to litigation. And he says those lawsuits will directly affect Oklahoma taxpayers.
“They're the ones getting stuck with this tab. So they're going to have to pay an enormous amount of money and they will have nothing to show for it.”
Anthony Sykes also co-authored a 2010 House Joint Resolution banning Sharia Law. Voters approved the measure, and a federal court eventually struck it down. The challenges cost the state more than $300,000. Robert Boczkiewicz reports for The Oklahoman:
Muneer Awad sued to block the law from taking effect, arguing that the Save Our State Amendment violated his First Amendment rights.
“This is an important reminder that the Constitution is the last line of defense against a rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry in our society, and we are pleased that the appeals court recognized that fact,’’ Awad said.
Hyden says the state could feel a sense of déjà vu.
Both conservatives and liberals caution against the ballot measure. Former state Sen. Connie Johnson chairs the “Say No to State Question 776” campaign. The Oklahoma City democrat fears the language circumvents the courts and prevents checks and balances.
“It precludes judges from ruling differently, precludes the legislature from introducing legislation to repeal it,” Johnson says.
She calls 776 a waste of time that’s premature. Since the measure was adopted last year, the state has started developing new execution protocols and multiple groups are reviewing the capital punishment practices. Johnson wants to know exactly what experts say before the death penalty becomes part of the constitution.
“This is the wrong time. We need to wait, if we do it at all. And we're going in the direction that is opposite from the rest of the country.”