An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.  - Gandhi

Groups hope to draw attention to death penalty in Oklahoma with 25 white crosses

By Carla Hinton, The Oklahoman, Aug. 23, 2022
Green or red — the colors will symbolize life or death, mercy or no mercy, in a prominent anti-death penalty display outside a northwest Oklahoma City church.

Twenty-five crosses have been erected along the front lawn of The Lazarus Community at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, 5808 NW 23, each one representing a person the state of Oklahoma is scheduled to execute, beginning Thursday with James Coddington, and extending into 2024.

The Rev. Bo Ireland, the church’s pastor, said the crosses — each 6 feet tall and about 4 feet wide — are hard to miss along the busy thoroughfare near NW 23 and MacArthur Boulevard. However, he said they will be even more eye-catching in the coming days and weeks. Monday, Ireland and a group of volunteers spray painted the large crosses white, but he said they won’t stay that way.

“If James Coddington is executed, we will paint one of these crosses red, and if he is granted clemency, we will paint it green,” Ireland said.

Coddington is set to be executed by lethal injection at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. He was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of Albert Hale. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended clemency for Coddington in early August.

It is up to Gov. Kevin Stitt to decide whether the death row inmate is granted clemency or executed on Thursday. Recently, Stitt granted a stay of execution for death row inmate Richard Glossip.

What has been described as a “mass scheduling of executions” by death penalty opponents began in June when Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor asked the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to set execution dates for 25 death row inmates. O’Connor made the request shortly after a federal judge ruled Oklahoma’s execution protocol does not violate a constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Ireland said leaders with the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty came up with the idea for the display of crosses. He said he agreed to erect the crosses on the lawn of his church and he and other coalition members are hoping other houses of worship will do the same.

Bible belt or ‘Death belt’?

The more than two dozen executions planned through 2024 in Oklahoma were the main topic of activities held by anti-death penalty activists in the last several days.

Shane Claiborne, a minister, activist and author of the book “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and How it is Killing Us,” was keynote speaker at the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s annual dinner and banquet on Saturday. Claiborne, Abraham “Abe” Bonowitz, president of Death Penalty Action, and other activists visited with several state legislators over the past weekend and they visited five Oklahoma City area churches to share their anti-death penalty message.

Claiborne lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he is founder of The Simple Way organization, and leads a movement called Red Letter Christians, which is made up of people who are committed to living “as if Jesus meant the things he said.”

He said a large percentage of state-sanctioned executions are conducted in states like Oklahoma which are considered part of the “Bible belt” of the United States because of the large number of Christian houses of worship there.

However, he said there is another way to describe the area.

“The Bible belt is the ‘death belt,'” he told a crowd gathered for the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s event.

Claiborne, a member of the Death Penalty Action board of directors, said he came to Oklahoma to encourage those who oppose the death penalty to continue to make their voices heard.

“It takes courage right now to say we can do better than killing to show that killing is wrong,” he said. “So, I know we’re gonna get the death penalty abolished, but the real question is, what role will Christians play? Will we be on the side of death and not the side of life? I’m so honored to stand with all of you who are the champions of life.”

Bonowitz with Death Penalty Action said Claiborne was asked to come to Oklahoma because he is a passionate opponent of the death-penalty and he is familiar with Christian theology. Death Penalty Action helped bring several people to the state to share their personal stories with Oklahomans about how the death penalty changed their lives. 

The Rev. Don Heath, chairman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said it was good that members of the coalition were able to meet together for the first time in about three years. He said the organization had not held in-person gatherings due to the pandemic but Saturday was a day they could come together to pledge their continued efforts to see the death penalty abolished in the state, particularly in light of the coming slate of executions.

“I’ve talked to national and international press and other people from all over the world,” Heath told those gathered. “They’re just kind of incredulous that we could be doing this in Oklahoma.”

The coalition, meeting at Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene, presented awards to several people including Oklahoma City rapper, activist and entrepreneur Jabee Williams, who received the Phil Wahl Abolitionist of the Year Award, for the integral role he played for the Justice for Julius campaign which focused on gaining clemency for then death row inmate Julius Jones. Governor Stitt commuted Jones’ sentence to life without the possibility of parole.   

Attorney Garvin Isaacs received the coalition’s Opio Toure Courage Advocate Award and former state legislator Connie Johnson was presented with the organization’s Lifetime Abolitionist Award. Adam Luck, a former member of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, received a standing ovation when Heath mentioned that he was in attendance and described him as “the most courageous person in Oklahoma.”

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