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Oklahoma finally did the right thing in stopping two executions

Sanity prevailed in Oklahoma on Monday.

Oklahoma County District Court Judge Patricia Parrish recently ruled that the state's secrecy-shrouded lethal-injection protocol denies condemned prisoners due process. The compelling point: How can prisoners weigh the constitutionality of their executions if they are barred from knowing with what drugs they will be killed? The state, naturally, is appealing that decision. But in a Kafka-esque twist of legal absurdities, one of the men, Clayton Lockett, came awfully close to execution anyway.

Through a bizarre legal convolution, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled after Parrish's decision that the authority to issue a stay of execution rested with the state Court of Criminal Appeals. But the appeals court said that no, in fact, it did not have that authority, even though the Supreme Court, which has the power to determine authority, said it did. Stalemate.

So while a judge had ruled that the condemned men raised legitimate issues over the constitutionality of the execution process, two other courts became bogged down bickering over which had the authority to keep the men from being executed before the legal issues were resolved.

Fortunately, the state Supreme Court asserted itself late Monday and issued the stay some 26 hours before Lockett was to die by lethal injection. The second condemned man, Charles Warner, faced execution next week. The stay applies to both cases.

To be sure, there is no room for sympathy for the defendants. Lockett was convicted of taking part in the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 19-year-old woman, and Warner of the rape and murder of his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter. No significant doubts have been raised over their guilt, the evidence against them or the caliber of their legal representation. Though it should be noted that the mother of Warner's victim has testified that she wanted Oklahoma to convert Warner's death sentence to life without parole, a request the state rejected.

My opposition to the death penalty is absolute, even in horrific cases like these. If it is wrong to kill, then it is wrong for the state to kill as a putative act of justice. In truth, it’s an act of revenge. But even those who support the death penalty should insist that it be done right, and constitutionally. And that includes providing the condemned with the information they need to determine whether the method of execution violates the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Given Oklahoma’s reputation as a strong pro-death penalty state, you can’t help but wonder if the courts' foot-dragging over granting the stay of execution had more to do with political exposure than with interpreting the law. If so, the Supreme Court deserves some credit for eventually making the right call, and the appeals court deserves criticism for losing sight of what is just.

Now let’s hope the Oklahoma courts continue on this path and affirm Parrish's decision that the government has no right to conduct its business – including how it handles executions – in secret.

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Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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