WE'RE No. 3!
You won't hear that slogan chanted or printed on T-shirts, but Oklahoma has the distinction of trailing only two states in the number of executions carried out since 1976. The other two states, Texas and Virginia, are much larger than Oklahoma.
Policy debates in Oklahoma often take the tack that we can't be the last state to do something (such as allow cockfighting) or the first state to do something (such as allow horse slaughtering plants). This is the singularity rule: Don't stand out unless what makes you unique is universally considered to be a good thing.
We wonder if the death penalty, which much of the world considers to be a bad thing, will ever put us in that position. Although it's not likely that Texas will precede Oklahoma in repealing the death penalty, which Maryland just did, it could happen. Oklahoma is among a shrinking number of states that impose a death penalty and actually use it.
Kansas has the death penalty but doesn't use it. The 1959 mass murder made famous by the “In Cold Blood” case resulted in the hanging of two killers in a prison yard. But no one has been executed in Kansas since 1965. In fact, only two people were executed after the “In Cold Blood” killers. The number of people executed in Kansas since 1950 is lower than the number put to death in Oklahoma in a typical five-year period since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Since that time, Oklahoma has executed 102 killers, compared with 493 in Texas. Based on current populations, Texas has executed one killer for every 52,858 residents. Oklahoma has executed one for every 37,171 residents. Although it's not yet April 1, the state has already executed an inmate — Steven Ray Thacker, on March 12.
In state after state, governors and legislators are grappling with capital punishment, support for which typically rises after a high-profile crime and slumps in between such crimes. The number of executions has fallen by more than 50 percent in the past 15 years, but Oklahoma isn't contributing to the slide. Its leaders and citizens overwhelmingly support capital punishment.
One report puts support here at 90 percent, which seems a stretch but which nevertheless shows support for a position that crosses party, gender and racial lines. There is no shame in this intensity of support. Capital punishment is constitutional from shore to shore and will remain so until the U.S. Supreme Court says otherwise.
Will that happen? Probably. The high court has gradually narrowed the focus of capital punishment by excluding defendants such as the young and the mentally infirm as well as the crimes subject to the ultimate punishment. One or two Supreme Court appointments could change the debate just as happened with abortion. In that case, what was illegal became constitutionally protected. In the case of capital punishment, what is legal could become constitutionally proscribed.
All the usual arguments about the death penalty — its supposed cruelty, its expense, the possibility of putting to death an innocent person — have failed to move the needle here because Oklahomans have long considered that the perpetrators of savage killings deserve to die. Indeed they do.
Yet lawmakers in two neighboring states (Kansas and Colorado) are debating an official repeal of death penalty statutes that aren't actually being used. While Kansas stopped executing killers nearly 50 years ago, Colorado has had only one execution since 1976. Even in states where executions continue, official support is waning; governors are taking people off death row with clemency orders.
We're No. 3.
A new law here and there could make us No. 1. Perhaps the rule of singularity is the only thing that will break this state's unabashed support for capital punishment.