Fox 25 Investigates: The Death Debate
OKLAHOMA CITY (KOKH) —
Oklahoma is preparing for a new year, a new administration and a new way to carry out executions. The state was once home to one of the busiest death chambers in the country, but no death sentence has been carried out since 2015.
Since 1915, Oklahoma has executed 195 people, more than 100 of those since 1990 when the death penalty was reinstated in Oklahoma following the Supreme Court decision that put the ultimate punishment on hold.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Oklahoma’s current self-imposed moratorium began in 2015 when Oklahoma was in the national spotlight following a botched execution and a case that called into question everything we're supposed to believe about the justice system.
As the public debate raged over the fate of Richard Glossip, all eyes turned to the governor’s office amid the growing concern about the legitimacy of his conviction. Governor Mary Fallin only had the authority to call for a short stay of execution, but that was a power her office made clear she would not use because she believed Glossip was guilty and jurors were right to impose the death sentence.
Delivering that news to the world, was not the governor of Oklahoma, but here spokesman Alex Weintz. In the Fall of 2015, Weintz would be the face the world saw as that supporting the execution of Richard Glossip and the justice of Oklahoma’s death penalty.
“I really liked my job; I liked working for Governor Fallin,” Weintz said of his time as the governor’s communications director. Weintz left public service and now works for a private public relations and public policy company. However, being caught in the middle of the death penalty was not a pleasant part of his time working for the governor. “I think we did a lot of good things in that office this is a part of my job I didn't like and it was hard not to take home with me.”
This is Weintz’ first time speaking on camera about the events surrounding the lead up to Glossip’s scheduled execution. It is the public’s first time hearing from anyone in Fallin’s inner circle about one of the most controversial times of her administration.
Weintz had worked for Mary Fallin for years prior to her gubernatorial election and had spoken for her on a number of controversial issues in the past. The death penalty debate was different than any other previous controversy.
“I've always been conflicted about the death penalty,” Weintz said of the challenge of defending the scheduled execution of Glossip while struggling with his own beliefs.
He saw his job as making sure the governor’s position was clearly communicated. “I was frustred, and I think a lot of people in the governor's office were frustrated because I thought that outside forces, like Susan Sarandon for instance, had come into the state and were essentially spinning a narrative which we did not agree with.”
Award-winning actress Susan Sarandon had portrayed Sister Helen Prejean in the motion picture “Dead Man Walking.” Sarandon became one of Glossip’s most outspoken advocates along with the woman she once portrayed, Sister Helen Prejean who had become Glossip’s spiritual adviser.
Sarandon once said “the governor of Oklahoma is just a horrible person,” during an interview. She would later apologize for that comment as the national and international spotlight on Glossip’s case and on the governor’s office grew brighter.
The governor would end up receiving requests from other celebrities including Richard Branson and even Pope Francis.
“I thought that our office quickly became a political pressure cooker,” Weintz said.
It wasn't just those opposed to the death sentence, the office heard the impassioned pleas of those on the other side of the death penalty debate.
“There were people who were part of this process who viewed a successful execution as closure and justice for the [Barry] Van Treese family,” Weintz said about hearing from the family of the victim Glossip is accused of planning the murder of and paying Justin Sneed to commit.
Ultimately, it wasn't any of pro or con arguments that led to the governor issuing a stay of execution. It was the 11th hour revelation the prison had received the wrong drug needed to end Glossip's life.
Our first look at the pressure inside the governor's office on that day came in the 106-page grand jury report that detailed the failures of the state in carrying out executions. The report showed the governor’s then general counsel Steve Mullins was pushing to carry out the execution even with an unapproved drug. He, no famously, told the Attorney General’s office to “Google It” when trying to convince Scott Pruitt’s office to order the execution to continue with Potassium Acetate instead of the required Potassium Chloride. The internal debate raged as state officials became aware that Oklahoma had, apparently unknowingly, experimented killing with potassium acetate on Charles Warner earlier in 2015.
“I think everyone wanted to get it right and was frustrated when, quite frankly, the state didn't get it right,” Weintz said. All of the debate
It all added to Weintz's own internal conflict over capital punishment.
“I think the best way to explain it is, on the one hand I want justice and accountability; on another hand, I am both as a person of faith and a conservative skeptical about giving government or other human beings ultimate power over other human beings.”
Also troubling to Weintz, the unintended consequences on the rest of the people who find themselves, willingly or not, in the middle of the death penalty.
“You're asking me about my role as a spokesperson, all I did was talk about it, someone in the Department of Corrections job is to inject people with poison and kill them; that takes a toll,” Weintz told FOX 25.
A new governor and a new staff will soon take over the office where the death penalty debate raged in 2015. Kevin Stitt has previously said he supports the death penalty for the “worst of the worst.”
“The death penalty is something sucks all the oxygen out of the room,” Weintz said in warning to any future policy makers, “Defending the death penalty or for that matter attacking the death penalty is ,something that takes a lot of moral and political capital and energy and you may find that you don't have any left to do anything that is constructive when you are done. So that is why I’ve become a skeptic of the death penalty.”
WHAT ABOUT THE VICTIMS
Where is the balance between justice and revenge? Can you have one without the other, or does it matter if you have both justice and revenge?
What is the proper punishment for killing someone? It's a question society and our courts have debated for centuries and your perspective on that question often depends on whether you attend a funeral before a trial.
“According to the coroner, the first blow was to her head and caused a hemorrhage, she screamed and the second blow was to her throat and crushed her larynx,” Ken Busch recalled of how his daughter Kathy was murdered. Floyd Medlock would confess he went on to beat, drown, rape and stab the seven-year-old girl before she finally died.
“Any victim that you talk to you that has been in the grieving process for long, initially we go through that part that says I want vengeance; I want them dead and I want them dead now and I’ll do it,” Busch said.
Ken would go on to found the Oklahoma Homicide Survivor’s support group. He was one of the first family members in Oklahoma who got to witness the killer’s execution.
"You think as you're building up to that wow this is going to give me some closure, everything stops here,” Busch told FOX 25.
Witnesses reported Medlock said "You all take it easy" to his family before his lethal injection began.
“It creates some other problems,” Busch said of the aftermath of the execution, “Because for 11 years, I had someone to focus my hate at; he was alive and breathing setting in a cell and I could, that's who I could hate and when he was dead, I didn't have anyone else to hate.”
Busch still supports the death penalty, but says it should be used carefully and constitutionally. He believes in making sure the right person is convicted and that justice is carried out efficiently.
“[The execution] was not a night of celebration, this was a night of justice,” Busch said, “At that time I knew there was another family, his family that knew my pain.”
Taylor Heintzelman's mother LaDonna lives knowing the man who ordered the kidnapping, torture and murder of her son walks free.
“That was because the [District Attorney] let them plea down. They were both charged with first-degree murder and they allowed them to plea one to accessory to kidnapping and the other accessory to first-degree murder and I don't think people realize those two crimes are not considered violent in this state,” LaDonna told FOX 25.
Only the person who pulled the trigger to finally end Taylor’s life is in prison. He is serving a life sentence, LaDonna said she was promised it was a death penalty case. She has become an ardent supporter of capital punishment.
“There's always that group of people that are going to say you need to forgive them or you're never going to have peace. I have plenty of peace in my life,” LaDonna said. “God's son was murdered too and he knows how we feel and what we're going through too and if he can forgive the murderers if they truly are repentful he'll forgive us, and I’m not worried about that. I know I’ve got God on my side.”
When the death penalty is discussed in Oklahoma, inevitably, regardless of how supportive or unsupportive the debaters are there is one case above all others that comes up. What about Timothy McVeigh? The man who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killing an identified 168 victims, including 19 children in a daycare and changing forever the lives of so many others.
“I had a period of time after Julie’s death, almost a year that I supported the death penalty because I was so full of that revenge; I had to get my revenge,” said Bud Welch who’s only daughter Julie Marie Welch died when she walked into the lobby of the Murrah building to meet a client just as the truck bomb exploded.
“I remember going down to the bomb site about 10 months after her death and I stood across the street from where the chain link fence was that surround the footprint of the Murrah building,” Welch recalled. “Every muscle in my body ached, and it was caused from alcohol poisoning and I began asking myself what did I need to do to move forward.”
Bud would end up embracing a cause his daughter had championed while she was alive; abolition of the death penalty.
“I recognized that the day we would take Tim McVeigh from his cage to kill him was not part of my healing process,” Welch said.
While Bud, Ken and LaDonna may disagree on the specifics or even the need for the death penalty, they do agree it isn't the so-often cited word "closure."
“[The word closure] is a way for a news person to attach something to it when they don't have anything to attach they call it ‘closure,’” Welch told FOX 25.
“Closure is something you do the door, you close the door, you close a drawer there's not closure in things like this,” Heintzelman said “And just because your loved one is dead you don't stop loving them.”
“The thing we all find out is the day your loved one was murdered you died with them and you have to learn who you are all over again,” Busch told FOX 25, “I became someone else when my daughter died. That person when she was alive died with her.”
If closure is a myth, then what is the death penalty?
If I had to argue why we need the death penalty, because we need justice,” Busch said “And that's what it has to remain is justice.”
“An execution is not about correcting anything,” Welch said, “An execution is basically revenge that's all it is and revenge never healed anyone.”
APPEALING TO A HIGHER AUTHORITY
Oklahoma's last method of execution ended up being fought all the way to the Supreme Court, the new method of using nitrogen gas will likely see a similar legal fight.
In a state where researchers say nearly 80-percent of citizens identify as “Christian” and nearly 90-percent say they believe in God, the debate about capital punishment often appeals to a higher power.
So often in Oklahoma politics, elected officials share their religious beliefs that impact their legislative priorities. The state went to court to defend putting the Ten Commandments monument on capitol grounds. Republican leaders regularly file what they call “pro-life” legislation.
In a political sense, the term “pro-life” applies to opposition to abortion. There is a growing number of religious leaders in Oklahoma who say “pro-life” should mean more than just that.
“The church has always maintained the sanctity of life, thou shall not kill we are created in the image and likeness of God and life is precious,” said Archbishop Paul Coakely of the Oklahoma City Archdiocese.
The Catholic Church’s position on how far to take "thou shalt not kill" has evolved over the years.
“So we believe in the sanctity of life we believe the state does have an obligation to protect itself to protect its citizens,” Archbishop Coakley said.
That position allows for the justness of wars, and the punishment of prisoners. In recent years, Catholic teachings have shifted away from supporting capital punishment.
“Pope Francis has taken that a step further that he says that he can see really no situation in which the use of the death penalty is morally necessary or justifiable,” Archbishop Coakley told FOX 25 saying that life should be protected from conception to its natural end.
“It is sometimes harder for people to grasp that though a person has committed a grievous heinous crime that they don't forfeit their human dignity their God-given human dignity,” the Archbishop said.
That is not the end of the debate, nationally, the Southern Baptist Convention has made it clear Christians should support the death penalty.
“Quite frankly, I happen to be a Baptist but I couldn't care less whether the Baptist Church supports something or not if it is clearly delineated in scripture and that is really what our standard is to be what does the Bible say,” said Pastor Paul Blair of the Fairview Baptist Church.
Pastor Blair said from the beginnings of the biblical set up of civil government, God ordained the death penalty.
“Obviously, this is a serious issue. Life is critical and that's why I am advocate for ending abortion because I think that is the senseless slaughter of innocent life and no life should be taken lightly,” Blair said.
Blair says the Old Testament teachings call for two or three witnesses before the death sentence is handed down.
“If a person is a murderer in their heart then the consequences of that then they should forfeit their own life and it should be done with absolute justice.”
That is the Old Testament, the New Testament includes the Gospels which tell a story of Jesus being asked to carry out an execution. Scriptures record Jesus telling the accusers that the person without sin could cast the first stone.
“Recognize that Jesus also wrote the Old Testament there is one author of the bible the Old Testament and the New Testament complete and complement each other,” Blair said of any concern there is a contradiction in the Bible’s teachings on the death penalty. “The woman taken in adultery was a unique situation and quite frankly it dealt more with hypocrisy of those who were making the accusation.”
“It is hard to imagine on the lips of Jesus any kind of statement in support of the death penalty,” Archbishop Coakley said.
Catholics argue the death penalty is simply unnecessary in today's day and age because life in prison fulfills the purpose of scriptural sentencing requirements. The Catholic church also argues that it allows for redemption without threatening society with the release of a killer.
“’Blessed are the merciful’ our Lord said. We can't ration Cod's mercy. We can't put limits on God's mercy,” Archbishop Coakley said. “So I would say that nobody is beyond the mercy of God; no sin, no crime is beyond redemption.”
While the justifications differ, both Pastor Blair and Archbishop Coakley agree that the death penalty as it is applied in Oklahoma has problems.
“The way it is carried out in this day and age I don't know that it is effective,” Blair said. “Because it is scriptural I am an advocate for it if it was carried out properly.”
“It seems as though there's a growing desire in our state to see reforms in these areas,” Archbishop Coakley said. “I truly hope so, the state of Oklahoma and the people of Oklahoma deserve better.”
THE NEW METHOD
Oklahoma is on track to be the first state to use nitrogen gas as its primary means of execution
With lethal injection drugs becoming harder and harder to get, the state announced earlier this year they are moving on to develop procedures to use nitrogen gas, or other inert gas to carry out executions.
One of the researchers on the project said Oklahoma should invest in a high-altitude training simulator to carry out these executions. The reasoning is it would be easier to defend in court because the effects of such a simulator are well documented.
Critics of the plan have claimed it could lead to a feeling of suffocation or potentially harm bystanders and other witnesses who could be overcome by the effects of the inert gas.
In an effort to separate fact from fiction, FOX 25 went to an Oklahoma physician who is also a certified flight surgeon for the United States Air Force.
Doctor Joshua Carey provided his medical expertise and personal experiences for this story and is in no way endorsing or opposing capital punishment. He recalled for us his last time in the simulator.
“They put you in an altitude chamber and they pump the atmosphere out so that it is the pressures of the gasses in our atmosphere are much, much lower. After a while you are in there you feel light headed that is usually the first thing, after that you get a little giddy. Your judgement starts getting impaired. Your vision changes because the rods and cones that do vision specifically the color vision they use a lot of oxygen as they work so y our color vision goes away, fairly quickly,” Dr. Carey said.
“Eventually my judgement was impaired and I didn't want to put my mask back on because I was feeling too good and they had to come and help me put my mask back on,” Dr. Carey said.
For executions there will be no one with an oxygen mask. The oxygen will either continue to be removed and replaced with an inert gas, or a mask or hood will be placed on the inmate to deliver straight nitrogen.
“Specifically, this is called hypoxic hypoxia meaning there is no oxygen and that is why your oxygen levels are getting low,” Dr. Carey said. He said someone experiencing this will not feel like they are suffocating.
“What drives humans to breath is not oxygen and it is not our sensation of whether or not we have enough oxygen, it is whether or not we are eliminating carbon dioxide,” Dr. Carey said. He said it is the carbon dioxide build up that cause anxiety and the body does not detect when oxygen is not present as long as the carbon dioxide is not being expelled.
Dr. Carey said it would only take two or three breaths of pure nitrogen for someone to pass out. Once that happened there is the possibility of heart arrhythmia or seizures, but a person would not experience pain with those and death comes quickly if oxygen is not introduced.
If nitrogen does leak out of any system, bystanders or witnesses it should not be concerned about being impacted. Dr. Carey said that humans breathe in nitrogen all the time and a little extra nitrogen is not problematic as long as there is some ventilation in the room.