With Oklahoma State Justice System in Crisis, State Poised to Take National Lead in Executions From Texas

Affiliate: ACLU of Oklahoma
December 4, 2001 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Oklahoma
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Statement of Diann Rust-Tierney, Director
ACLU Capital Punishment Project


WASHINGTON – We today call on Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating to impose a moratorium on executions as his state’s death penalty system finds itself in uncharted waters with more and more cases involving false testimony presented by former Oklahoma City Forensic Chemist Joyce Gilchrist coming under the scrutiny of investigators and a grand jury.

If her execution goes forward as planned tonight, Lois Nadean Smith would be the 17th person executed in Oklahoma this year, pulling Oklahoma into first place ahead of Texas for total number of executions during 2001. Previously, both states were tied for the national lead with 16 executions each this year. Smith would be the third woman to be executed in Oklahoma this year, and, with her death, Oklahoma would also gain the status of being the state to execute the most women – three – in the United States in any one year.

The Oklahoma death penalty system in practice raises alarming and frightening questions about the state’s justice system overall. Rather than competing with Texas for the status of number one death penalty state in the country, Governor Keating should immediately issue a moratorium on executions while the state’s death penalty system gives serious consideration to the wealth of problems from which the state’s system is suffering.

Columbia Law Professor James Liebman’s well-known death penalty study found that 75 percent of the capital cases in Oklahoma had serious errors. The same study determined that the state courts overturned capital convictions or changed sentences on appeal over 50 percent of the time. Even without being a victim of false and/or misleading testimony given by Joyce Gilchrist, Oklahoma capital crime defendants find themselves at the mercy of a seriously troubled death penalty system. In reality, one out of every two Oklahoma capital defendants on trial can expect to receive inadequate legal defense, or to have evidence missed or withheld, or for his/her jury to receive flawed instructions.

Now is not the time for Oklahoma to be executing yet another person. The state’s criminal justice system suffers from significant problems, including inadequate legal representation from inexperienced lawyers, withheld evidence, and now, one of the worst evidentiary debacles in our time. Now is the time for Oklahoma’s leaders to have the same courage, which elected leaders in other states are exhibiting, by calling for a moratorium in their state’s woefully troubled death penalty system. Calling for a moratorium in Oklahoma’s executions will greatly benefit the residents of Oklahoma, improve the state’s national reputation and bolster our country’s criminal justice proceedings overall.

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