House commitee clears death penalty moratorium bill

Feb. 29—A bill that would place a moratorium on the death penalty in Oklahoma unanimously passed out of a legislative committee Wednesday.

House Bill 3138 creates the Death Penalty Moratorium Act. The bill is authored by Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow.

"I'm almost to the point that I'll fight to end it if we don't correct some of this stuff," McDugle said during a Wednesday meeting of the Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee.

The bill would provide that "the execution of judgment in all cases where a sentence of death has been imposed are stayed until further act of the Legislature." The bill would put a five-year moratorium on the death penalty in the state. McDugle said he is willing to amend the language to a lesser time frame in order to garner support.

Oklahoma has executed 11 death row prisoners since a nearly seven-year moratorium ended in October 2021.

HB 3138 will also create a task force that would look into what the state needs to implement from a 2017 report from the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission "to make sure we're not executing innocent people." The task force's recommendations would then go to the state legislature for further review and possible action through legislation.

The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission was formed after the state of Oklahoma imposed a moratorium on the execution of condemned inmates. In late 2015, Oklahoma executions were put on hold while a grand jury investigated disturbing problems involving recent executions, including departures from the execution protocols of the Department of Corrections. The report of the grand jury, released in May of 2016, was highly critical and exposed a number of deeply troubling failures in the final stages of Oklahoma's death penalty.

The commission spent a year going over the state's execution process and "led Commission members to question whether the death penalty can be administered in a way that ensures no innocent person is put to death."

McDugle said 45 recommendations were made by the committee and "not one of these recommendations that would help save an innocent person's life has been implemented yet."

"We've got to take this report seriously," McDugle said. "It has to be done in law, because if we do it in rules, rules can change."

McDugle has said he believes Oklahoma death row inmate Richard Glossip is innocent and said he would fight to abolish the death penalty in Oklahoma if Glossip is executed. Glossip's case is currently stayed due to a pending case with the U.S. Supreme Court. McDugle also used the example of Phillip Hancock, who was executed in November 2023 , despite his case being "a clear self-defense case."

When asked if he supports the death penalty, McDugle said he supported it "1000%."

"A big struggle that I have is those who are guilty, we know are guilty, need to be put to death as soon as possible for the victim's families," McDugle said.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections website, 36 inmates are currently on death row.

Oklahoma currently has two executions scheduled. If signed into law, the bill would go into effect in July, which would not interfere with the current scheduled executions.

Michael Dewayne Smith is scheduled to be put to death April 4 for the deaths of Janet Moore and Sharath Pulluru in 2002.

Wade Greely Lay is currently scheduled for execution June 6, pending the result of an April competency trial, for the 2004 shooting death of Kenneth Anderson, a Tulsa bank security guard, during an attempted robbery.

A joint motion filed in January by Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond and Oklahoma Department of Corrections Executive Director Steven Harpe asked the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to set, at 90-day intervals, the phase three execution dates for six Oklahoma death row inmates. No ruling from OCCA on the setting of the execution dates was made as of Thursday.

"My problem in our state right now, is that we cannot trust the system, period," McDugle said. "And I hate it. Here in Oklahoma, the reddest of the red, the most Christ-like state that I know, and we cannot trust the system because we're not willing to stand up and admit mistakes and fix them."