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

OP ED: Rev. Don Heath, Oklahoma executions will continue until the people say ‘Stop’

This opinion was originally published on August 28, 2022 by The Oklahoman

I was in the execution chamber with James Coddington Thursday for the last 45 minutes of his life.

When I entered, he was already strapped to a gurney, lying on his back with his arms extended. It looked like he was on a cross, except lying flat on his back. He had an IV going.

His concern for the last week has been that he just wanted Gov. Kevin Stitt to announce a decision on clemency. His attitude has been, “This is hanging over me, and I can’t think about anything else. I would just like to know one way or the other.”

The Pardon and Parole Board recommended clemency on Aug. 3, but Gov. Stitt had to approve their recommendation to commute the death sentence to life without the possibility of parole. Stitt didn’t make his decision until less than 24 hours before the execution, releasing a statement in which he didn’t give a reason for denying clemency.

For the first 10 or 15 minutes, James was talking about that. He didn’t understand why Stitt waited so long. He was disturbed that he didn’t give a reason. James said that he was disappointed but that he accepted his fate. He said he was being punished for killing his friend, Albert Hale, and he accepted that. He thought he had a lot more to give, he could contribute to the community in prison, but if that was the governor’s will, there was nothing he could do about it.

Then I held a brief religious service for him the last 10 minutes before the execution was to begin. I told James he was a beloved child of God, that every man on death row is a beloved child of God, that Gov. Stitt is a beloved child of God, and that God forgives his sins. I said the words of committal that ministers say at a graveside: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I prayed for him and talked to him about the people that love him. When the curtain went up at 10 a.m. his last words to the witnesses in the chamber were expressing his love for his fiancé and her three children, for his brother and his niece, for his attorney and her investigator, for me, for the other people who supported him.

Once the drugs started, I read Scripture to him. I started with the Beatitudes. Then I read from Isaiah 40 and Jeremiah 31 on God’s forgiveness of the sins of the people.

James had been quiet, but at that point he had one last surge of energy, as the dying sometimes have. He said, “Father, forgive my sin.” I said, “Your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Those were his last words.

I continued to read Scripture and he started snoring. At 10:15 Scott Crow, director of Oklahoma Department of Corrections, entered the chamber and pronounced him dead.

James died a changed man. He has been a model prisoner for 15 years. I visited with him on death row for several hours in the last month. I have never seen him bitter or angry. He repeatedly acknowledged his crime and expressed remorse for killing Albert Hale. The Pardon and Parole Board recognized that. Gov. Stitt did not.

The State of Oklahoma has scheduled 24 more executions over the next 29 months. My hope is not with this governor or this attorney general. They apparently are not capable of granting mercy or forgiveness to death-row inmates, unless there’s a political motivation. My hope is that the people of Oklahoma will be repulsed and recognize that this is the senseless killing of a defenseless person who committed a crime 25 years ago.

I don’t think of the inmates on death row as the worst of the worst — they are the least of these. The worst of the worst are those who use the state machinery of death to kill defenseless people. And I am afraid that they are going to have their way until the people say, “Stop.”

Rev. Don Heath is a Disciples of Christ minister in Edmond and is Chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

This opinion was originally published on August 28, 2022 by The Oklahoman

(Image: Death penalty opponents gather near the governor’s mansion Thursday, August 25, 2022, to protest the execution of James Coddington | DOUG HOKE/THE OKLAHOMAN)

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