The Long, Last Walk
Serene Death Row is the last address for Oklahoma’s worst offenders.
The condemned’s last day on earth begins before daybreak at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Footfalls echo on death row as guards escort him to a holding cell only eight feet and 12 hours away from the execution chamber. In 2012, five convicted Oklahoma murderers walked the “last mile.” Gary Welch would have been the sixth, except he died of natural causes only weeks before his scheduled execution in January 2012.
Sixty-two others, including one woman, await their turns. One hundred have been put to death since 1976. Oklahoma leads the nation in executions per capita and ranks third behind Texas and Virginia in overall numbers.
Michael Edward Hooper was one of the death chamber’s most recent visitors on Aug. 14. He was sentenced to death for the Dec. 7, 1993, slayings of Cynthia Lynn Jarman, 23, and her two children, Tonya, 5, and Timmy, 3. He shot each twice in the head and buried their bodies in a shallow grave in a field near Oklahoma City.
Witnesses – both Hooper’s relatives and those of the victims – watched through a window from a separate room as Hooper delivered his final words while strapped to a gurney with IV tubes attached to his arms.
“I just want to thank God for such an exuberant send-off. . .” he said. “I ask that my spirit be released into the hands of Jesus. I’m ready to go.”
Although “we have means to prevent them from fighting or trying to get off the table,” says Terry Crenshaw, Warden’s Assistant at McAlester, “individuals have pretty well made peace with their God by this time.”
People of good will have debated both sides of capital punishment since at least 1608 when the death penalty was first administered in the New World to a resident of Jamestown Colony for spying for the Spanish government. Throughout the rest of the 17th century, the British Governor of Virginia’s Divine, Moral and Martial Laws hung the convicted for all sorts of crimes, including stealing vegetables and trading with Indians.
Capital punishment came to Oklahoma in 1804 when Congress applied U.S. criminal law to the Louisiana Purchase, which included Oklahoma. Capital crimes were tried in federal courts in Arkansas, Kansas and Texas until Indian Territory became a state in 1907. Judge Isaac Parker, the “hanging judge,” sent a total of 79 Indian Territory convicts to the gallows.
Hanging remained Oklahoma’s most common method of execution until 1915 when Henry Bookman became the first convicted Oklahoma killer to sit in “old sparky,” the electric chair. A total of 82 males, no females, died in the state’s electric chair until the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972.
Execution has been by lethal drugs since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Charles Troy Coleman holds the dubious honor of being the first Oklahoman to die by this “more humane method” when he was executed on Sept. 10, 1990, for a 1979 murder in Muskogee County. Wanda Jean Allen, executed in 2001 for slaying her lesbian lover, was the first woman in the state to die by lethal injection – one of only three women executed in Oklahoma since statehood. Currently, 34 states still actively practice capital punishment.
Certain aggravating circumstances must be present before a killer can be sent to Death Row in Oklahoma. These include prior conviction for a violent felony; knowingly creating great risk to more than one person; murder for hire; an exceptionally atrocious or cruel murder; murder committed to avoid arrest or prosecution; murder while serving a sentence for a violent felony; and a high probability of a repeat offense or of becoming a further threat to society.
A 2006 Oklahoma law, so called “Jessica’s Law,” allows the death penalty for anyone convicted twice for rape, sodomy or lewd molestation involving children under the age of 14. It has not yet been applied in the state.
Abolitionist groups such as Oklahoma’s Anti-Death Penalty Project and the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty oppose all capital punishment on a variety of levels ranging from the moral to the practical. More than 200 death penalty opponents gathered outside the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., on June 11, 2001, when Oklahoma’s most notorious son, Timothy McVeigh, was executed for killing 168 people in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Abolitionists held a “Don’t Kill For Me” silent vigil at the Governor’s Mansion on the evening of Michael Hooper’s execution.
“Murder is often committed by insane, intoxicated, passion-ridden people who don’t consider the consequences of their acts,” asserts Joe P. Robertson, director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System that employs 75 full-time staff attorneys statewide to represent indigent defendants. “But what about someone who knows all the facts, is soberly cognizant and makes a considered opinion to kill? That’s what a jury does. What’s the difference between an individual killing someone and a jury killing someone? Killing should be wrong for everyone.”
Proponents of capital punishment take umbrage with the assertion that condemned murderers may not be responsible for their choices and actions. Some crimes, they argue, are so horrific that society’s only adequate response is to prescribe death in order to re-level the scales of justice.
“The scary psychopath who should be executed is a rare exception rather than the rule,” concludes Tulsa County Chief Public Defender Pete Silva, who defended his first capital offense in 1979. He, like many of those who oppose capital punishment, contends the death penalty is no deterrent to crime.
A 2008 poll cited by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C. surveyed the nation’s police chiefs and reported that almost all of them ranked the death penalty last among their crime-fighting priorities since they did not believe it deterred.
“I have inquired for much of my adult life about statistics that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent,” Janet Reno, Attorney General under President Bill Clinton, has said, “and I haven’t seen any research that would substantiate that point.”
Does Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris, who has been a prosecutor for 27 years, think the death penalty is a deterrent? “Yes, I do. For that one individual, anyhow. First of all, it’s Oklahoma law. But since it is the ultimate punishment, it should be reserved for only the most heinous crimes.”
Another argument used by abolitionists is that lethal injection by drugs may not always provide painless death. Florida inmate Angel Diaz took 34 minutes and a second round of drugs before he died from lethal injection in 2006. Witnesses said he “gasped” and “grimaced.”
“We need to kill people softly,” Austin Sarat, a professor at Amherst College, has said, “to kill people gently in order to have a legitimate form of execution. And we just can’t figure out what that is.”
Former State Medical Examiner Dr. Jay Chapman, who helped approve the lethal drug method for Oklahoma executions, counters by saying, “Considering the methods by which (convicted murderers) dispatched their victims, (lethal injection) is perhaps a little too humane.”
In 2011, some 3,200 people were confined on federal and state death rows in the United States. It is far cheaper, say opponents of capital punishment, to house a prisoner for life than to execute him. The average cost from arrest to execution for a single inmate ranges from between $1 and $3 million. In Texas, a death penalty case costs about $3 million, while imprisoning an inmate for 40 years (a life sentence) costs $2 million.
Perhaps the strongest abolitionist argument is that innocent people may be executed.
“We’re the state with the highest per capita execution rate and the highest per capita wrongful conviction rate,” points out Dr. Susan Sharp, death penalty researcher at the University of Oklahoma.
Since 1973, 140 death row inmates nationwide have been released after being exonerated. Eight people have been cleared in Oklahoma while on death row, largely through relatively new DNA research.
Harris has established a review process to prevent wrongful convictions in Tulsa County.
“I’ve been present at three different executions,” he says. “When you’re there and watch it meted out, you know you can’t be wrong about the decision. We must make sure beyond a reasonable doubt that the evidence is appropriate, strong and that there are no mistakes.”
Polls show a majority of Americans continue to support the death penalty. In Oklahoma, according to the District Attorneys Council, most prosecutors oppose efforts to abolish capital punishment. The vast majority of law enforcement officers also believe that some convicted murders should pay the ultimate price.
The problem, cops say, is in the unconscionably long time between conviction and execution. In June 1936, Arthur Gooch was hanged after spending less than a year on Oklahoma’s death row. Today, legal appeals to higher courts can drag on for decades. Michael Hooper spent 19 years on death row. A Florida inmate died of natural causes at the age of 94 after spending 37 years awaiting execution.
Wagoner County Sheriff Bob Colbert believes the death penalty is a mockery of justice for the anguish it imposes upon the victim’s loved ones while the convicted killer languishes.
“The pain and suffering of the victim’s family is worse than anything the criminal endures,” he maintains.
“The long period between conviction and execution strings out grieving families as they wait for closure,” agrees Gary Neece, Tulsa Police sergeant and author of the novel Cold Blue. “If I had a mind to kill someone, and was actually convicted, my appeals would drag out for years. Finally, when my last day arrived, I could rest easy knowing I’d lived longer than my reckless lifestyle would have afforded me on the streets.”
The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear the case of a Florida inmate who insisted his 32 years on death row amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Justice John Paul Stevens, now retired, expressed concern over such long incarcerations on Death Row.
“Delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable,” he said, “and...executing defendants after such delays is unacceptably cruel.”
Justice Clarence Thomas has a different take. “It is the crime, and not the punishment imposed by the jury or the delay in petitioner’s execution, that was ‘unacceptably cruel.’”
Joe P. Robertson believes capital punishment will eventually be abolished in America.
“We are one of the few nations in the world that still practices it,” he says. “The higher the level of education and sophistication within a state, the less likely it is to approve the death penalty. Where it prevails now is in the south and southwest. These will be the last states to abolish it.”
Should capital punishment eventually be stricken, contends Silva, the alternative must be life in prison without any possibility of parole in order that society can be adequately protected.
“There is a lot of talk about commuting sentences,” he explains, “which I think is a bad idea. The law should be what it says, and for everyone. Justice that is not certain is justice denied.”
In the meantime, life at McAlester for the approximately 60 men and one woman on Death Row continues as they await their “last mile.”
Warden’s Assistant Crenshaw describes a world that is uniformly concrete. Except for a few who are double-celled, the majority live solitarily in concrete cells approximately 12-by-eight feet. In each, the only furnishings are a bunk overlaid by a mattress, a toilet and a desk, all of which are concrete. A small, high window allows sunlight, but inmates are unable to see trees, grass or anything else outside.
The prisoner lives in this small space 23 hours of every day. He is allowed one hour a day in an exercise area either alone or with his cellmate. Like his cell, the exercise area is a somewhat larger concrete box, about 30 feet by 15 feet, with a small skylight window. There is no exercise equipment.
Each inmate may have a TV and is allowed to check out books that are carted around from the prison library system. Scheduled visitors must sit on the opposite side of a thick wall of glass.
Most eventually become accustomed to life on death row. “There’s a peacefulness,” one observes. “There is contentment. There’s peace and quiet.”
Contrary to popular myth, executions do not occur at midnight. The usual execution process in Oklahoma starts at about 5:30 p.m. and is over in less than an hour. Three guards watch and log the condemned’s every movement during his last day in the holding cell.
“He can make phone calls, write letters and have visitors,” says Crenshaw, “and he is allowed to shower and change into fresh offender’s clothing. He is served his last meal between noon and 1 p.m. It has to be selected off a menu from McAlester restaurants and cannot exceed $15.”
As time draws near, the individual is allowed to freely walk the short eight feet from the holding cell to the execution chamber. This is the only time during the day that he is not restrained.
“We have staff to help if he needs assistance, if his legs get weak or something,” Crenshaw explains.
The execution room is painted white; it contains only a white-sheeted gurney. The condemned is placed on the gurney, and an IV is inserted into each arm. Lines from the IVs lead through a wall behind which the executioners wait.
Witnesses enter the outer room, sit in chairs and watch through the plate glass window that separates them from the individual who is only minutes away from death. The warden allows the condemned two minutes to make his final statement. Afterward, behind the wall, out of sight, three executioners, whose identities are known only to the warden, administer three cocktail drugs with handheld syringes into the IV lines.
The first syringe contains pentobarbital, which causes unconsciousness. The second, vecuronium bromide, stops respiration. Finally, potassium chloride from the third syringe stops the heart.
Michael Edward Hooper smiled as the drugs began to flow at 6:08 p.m. He exhaled deeply, murmured, “I love you all,” closed his eyes, and lay motionless.
It was over.