Remember the victims in the execution debate

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Lost in much of the debate around capital punishment are the victims and their surviving loved ones. These are people who, in many circumstances, have endured public trials and a lengthy appeals process, waiting decades for justice after losing a family member or friend.

Their victimization is continuing, haunted by the daily knowledge that they will never see their loved ones again, while the individuals responsible for taking someone’s life go on living, eating, sleeping, watching TV and enjoying visits from their families and friends, all at state expense.

{mosads}On the day we announced the state’s plan to move forward with capital punishment in Oklahoma through inert gas inhalation (IGI), I scheduled a morning conference call with the families and friends of the murder victims of the 16 death row inmates who have exhausted their appeals. That emotionally-charged phone call was perhaps the most difficult and heartrending conversation I have had in all my years of public service. 


The participants on the call shared the pain, despair and anguish of not knowing if they will ever receive justice for loved ones they lost to the consummate act of evil: first-degree murder. Rightfully, they were frustrated that it has taken so long for the state to advance a plan, but by the end of the call, they were supportive and appreciative of our decision.

Opponents of the death penalty have launched an effective campaign against capital punishment. Because of their efforts to intimidate and boycott drug suppliers, states are struggling to find proper drugs to perform executions by lethal injection. This once reliable, effective process has been sabotaged and the search for medical professionals who want to carry out executions has become increasingly problematic.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito summed it up best in 2015 during arguments in Glossip v. Gross, when he said opponents of capital punishment are waging “a guerrilla war against the death penalty,” the goal of which is to make it impossible for states to obtain execution drugs.

Although I respect the opinions of death penalty opponents, I categorically disagree with their position as well as their tactics and believe firmly that capital punishment is proportional as a criminal sanction, effective as a deterrent and absolutely necessary to achieve justice.

Oklahomans, in particular, overwhelmingly favor capital punishment. In 2016, nearly two-thirds of the electorate voted to amend the state constitution to guarantee the state’s power to impose capital punishment.

At our press conference on March 14, Department of Corrections Director Joe M. Allbaugh said that since he arrived at the department he has searched tirelessly for execution drugs, calling around the world in an attempt to secure them — without success. Accordingly, he advised it was time to move to our next option, IGI. This is in accordance with the 2015 state law that makes nitrogen hypoxia, i.e. IGI, the primary method of execution if lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional or the execution drugs necessary are not available.

Through our research, we have found substantial and persuasive authority to support the use of IGI as a safe and effective method of execution. It is simple to perform and the nitrogen gas necessary for the procedure is inexpensive and commonly available.

The Department of Corrections is identifying and engaging experts in the handling and usage of nitrogen. Director Allbaugh is committed to developing the expertise, equipment and safeguards necessary to utilize IGI as an execution protocol. The experience and use of IGI in states and countries in which assisted suicide is legal will provide a significant and well-documented set of case studies upon which we can rely to perfect it as a method of execution.

Executions are the most profound application of state power. As officials in a state allowing capital punishment, it is our obligation to discharge that responsibility in an effective, humane manner that adheres to the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The suffering that victims and survivors must endure is something most of us cannot or will not ever understand. Last week, as we wrapped up our conference call, a mother spoke up, saying she has been waiting more than 25 years for closure, after the murder of her daughter. She asked me how much longer she would have to wait for justice. I gave her the best answer I could, though it was wholly insufficient: “Hopefully, very soon.”  

As we begin to carefully work to finalize the IGI protocol and seek approval by the courts, my promise to that mother will be a daily reminder to me of the urgency to see this process through to a successful conclusion. Because I truly believe that justice delayed is justice denied.

Mike Hunter is the Oklahoma attorney general. He is a former secretary of state and special legal counsel to the governor; former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives for six years; and former chief of staff then-U.S. Rep. J. C. Watts Jr. (1995 to 1999).

Tags Capital punishment Capital punishment in the United States Glossip v. Gross Law Lethal injection Oklahoma

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