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Oklahoma governor reconsiders death penalty

Special Report Writer

While Oklahoma leads the nation in executions carried out so far this year -- 13 -- serious questions about the way capital punishment is administered are being raised at the highest political levels.

Those questions were highlighted when a local hospital decided to stop providing the state with drugs necessary for execution.

On June 23 Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating told a National Press Club audience that the state’s current legal standard for the death penalty was “too low.” The governor, who has allowed 40 executions during his six years in office, said, “Moral certainty should be the standard for capital punishment.”

Keating, a Catholic, has openly disagreed with the church and has said, “The pope is wrong on this issue.”

“I believe in the death penalty,” Keating said in Washington, but added: “I think people are justifiably concerned about how it has been administered. You are never going to be able to keep it unless you make sure you don’t make mistakes.”

His remarks came in the wake of investigations of Joyce Gilchrist, a 21-year Oklahoma City police chemist. The FBI has accused Gilchrist of shoddy work in five death penalty cases that ended with convictions, and has also said that she testified “beyond the acceptable limits of forensic science.” Gilchrist, who defends her work in the 1,448 cases that have been assigned to her, is on paid administrative leave.

With talk of wrongdoing and mistakes increasing, the state legislature recently appropriated $725,000 for the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System to look into questionable cases.

“A moratorium could ignite overnight in Oklahoma, but it needs a spark,” attorney Steve Presson told NCR. “We thought the spark would be Gov. George Ryan,” Presson said, referring to the Illinois governor who called for a moratorium in January 2000 after that state reversed the sentences on 13 death row inmates. “Then we thought Gilchrist would be the spark,” said the Oklahoma City lawyer, who with his partner represents 13 death row inmates.

A bill introduced in the state legislature last session to set a one-year moratorium on executions in Oklahoma did not make it out of the House Rules Committee.

Still, Presson views as a positive sign the granting of clemency to two death row inmates this year -- the first such action by the state’s Pardon and Parole Board since 1966.

For Jim Fowler, whose son, Mark, was executed by lethal injection in McAlester, Okla., on Jan. 23 (NCR, Jan. 19), the momentum toward a moratorium “is not wishful thinking,” he told NCR by telephone from his home in Oklahoma City. “I’m trying to be very realistic. Two years ago there was nothing happening. Now there is clemency granted by a governor who said he would never grant clemency to anyone on death row. ... Our job is to have hope,” he said.

Earlier this month another indication of objection to the death penalty came from Joel Tate, chief executive of McAlester Regional Health Center, the community hospital that supplies the death house with the lethal drugs necessary to perform executions. Bowing to pressure exerted by Human Rights Watch in the midst of the Gilchrist investigations, the hospital announced that it would no longer supply the state with drugs needed for executions.

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001