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Oklahoma Pardon And Parole Board recommends clemency for James Coddington

James Coddington in 2021.
Oklahoma Department Of Corrections
James Coddington in 2021.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-2 on Wednesday to recommend clemency to death row inmate James Coddington. The board's clemency recommendation is for life without the possibility of parole.

Richard Smothermon, Larry Morris and Edward Konieczny all voted for the recommendation, while Scott Williams and Cathy Stocker voted against.

The 50-year-old is on death row for the 1997 murder of his friend Albert Troy Hale in Choctaw, after Hale refused to loan Coddington $50 to buy drugs. Coddington told police he had been high on cocaine for three days when he robbed at least six convenience stores and killed Hale.

Coddington's attorney opened the hearing by recounting the many ways Coddington was abused and neglected in his childhood, including being given alcohol as a baby and cocaine as an 11-year-old by family members.

Representatives from the State Attorney General’s Office argued that didn’t matter. They pointed out Coddington committed a string of robberies before the murder.

Two of Hale's children and a grandchild joined the hearing via Zoom to request the Pardon and Parole Board not recommend clemency.

Coddington said he feels remorse for his actions and has worked to improve himself while in prison over the last 25 years. That included receiving his GED in 2002.

"If this ends with my death, I can't say it's wrong," Coddington said before the board's recommendation. "I'm clean, I know God, I'm not a vicious murderer."

Though the board ultimately decided to recommend clemency, the final decision will fall to Gov. Kevin Stitt.

"By voting to commute James Coddington’s death sentence, the Board has acknowledged that his case exemplifies the circumstances for which clemency exists," said Emma Rolls, one of the attorneys for Coddington. "We urge Governor Stitt to adopt the Board’s recommendation."

Stitt's hand-picked Attorney General John O'Connor expressed disappointment in the board's recommendation.

"Two different Oklahoma juries found that the murder was so heinous that death was the appropriate punishment," O'Connor said in a statement. "The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board hearing is not designed to be a substitute for a trial before a jury."

Coddington is the first of a string of 25 death row inmates scheduled for execution over the next two years. Those executions were scheduled after a federal judge ruled in June that Oklahoma's controversial three-drug lethal injection protocol is constitutional.

If Stitt rejects the board's recommendation, Coddington is set to be executed by lethal injection on Aug. 25 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

Stitt and the Pardon and Parole Board

Stitt has only granted clemency to one death row inmate — Julius Jones. In November 2021, he commuted Jones' death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The executive order is conditional on Jones never being "eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the remainder of his life."

The board also recommended clemency for Bigler Stouffer that same month, but Stitt rejected that recommendation and denied him clemency.

In May, a grand jury report deemed Stitt's actions with potential members of the Pardon and Parole Board as "grossly improper." The report said "improper political pressure was placed upon some board members" and pointed to a meeting Stitt had with people he ultimately appointed to the board. That meeting included discussions of upcoming votes and the dismissal of the agency's then-director.

That same report concluded the board cut corners and ignored proceses in order to get a large amount of people onto commutation dockets.

Stitt's office called the report a "sham."

The governor appoints three of the five members of the Pardon and Parole Board, and Williams, Konieczny and Stocker were all appointed by Stitt. The latter two were appointed earlier this year, following the resignations of Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle. Luck, who served on the board since 2019, resigned at the request of the governor. In his resignation letter, Luck noted differing beliefs between himself and Stitt over executions.

A torturous history

For years, executions in Oklahoma have been gruesome and filled with protocol violations.

In October 2021, in the state's first execution in seven years, John Grant convulsed and vomited repeatedly after being administered the three-drug cocktail. But, the late 2021 and early 2022 executions of three inmates — Stouffer, Donald Grant and Gilbert Postelle — were all reported by witnesses to happen without any complications.

Executions had been on pause in Oklahoma following the near-execution of Richard Glossip in 2015, and the botched lethal injections of Charles Warner in 2015 and Clayton Lockett in 2014.

Glossip was scheduled to die in September 2015. Then-Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a last-minute stay of execution for Glossip when it was discovered the Department of Corrections received a shipment of potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride, as required in the state's execution protocol.

An autopsy report revealed the state used the wrong drug — again, potassium acetate — to execute Warner in January 2015. According to witnesses, Warner said, "It feels like acid," and "My body is on fire" while being given the three-drug cocktail.

Lockett's April 2014 execution was also botched. A report issued after his death found that after trying for 51 minutes to find a vein, a phlebotomist misplaced the IV line intended to deliver the lethal cocktail of drugs directly into Lockett's bloodstream. Instead, the cocktail was delivered to the surrounding tissue.

Lockett writhed on the gurney and mumbled before being pronounced dead 43 minutes after the procedure began. An investigation later revealed that the faulty insertion of the intravenous line and lack of training of the execution team contributed to the problems.

In January 2014, Oklahoma executed Michael Lee Wilson by lethal injection. Shortly after his execution started, Wilson's final words were, "I feel my whole body burning."

Ryan LaCroix is the Director of Content and Audience Development for KOSU.
Hannah France is a reporter and producer for KGOU.
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