Advocates for death row inmate James Coddington are urging Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt to stop his execution after the state’s Board of Pardon and Parole voted to recommend clemency.
Coddington, 50, is set to be put to death on August 25, the first of 25 death row inmates whose executions were scheduled after a federal judge rejected their challenge to the state’s lethal injection method.
He admitted to killing 73-year-old Albert Hale, a friend and co-worker who refused to loan him $50 to buy cocaine.
Coddington beat Hale on the head at least three times with a hammer inside Hale’s home in Choctaw in 1997. He was sentenced to death twice in the case, the second time in 2008 after his initial sentence was overturned on appeal.
On Wednesday, the Oklahoma Board of Pardon and Parole voted 3-2 to recommend Coddington’s death sentence be commuted to life without the possibility of parole.
The recommendation now goes to Stitt, a Republican who is up for reelection this year. He approved a clemency request for Julius Jones in 2021, but rejected the board’s recommendation to spare Bigler Stouffer’s life.
“By voting to commute James Coddington’s death sentence, the Board has acknowledged that his case exemplifies the circumstances for which clemency exists,” Emma Rolls, one of Coddington’s attorneys, said in a statement to Newsweek. “We urge Governor Stitt to adopt the Board’s recommendation.”
Rev. Don Heath, the chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said he was “surprised but pleased” by the board’s recommendation.
“James’ life is now is Governor Stitts’ hands,” Heath said in a statement provided to Newsweek.
“We ask Gov. Stitt to read the clemency packet, to watch the clemency hearing today and to look to his own faith to decide when mercy and forgiveness is appropriate and we hope that he will allow James Coddington to spend the rest of his natural life behind bars.”
Stitt said on Wednesday that he has not been formally briefed on Coddington’s case, but will meet with prosecutors, defense attorneys and the victim’s family before making a decision.
“Sometimes there’s not even a question of guilt—they’re admitting it, but do they deserve mercy?” he told The Associated Press.
“Those are all tough questions. What does mercy look like? What does justice look like? And I really take that very seriously and get by myself once I get all the facts and make that decision.”
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor will oppose the recommendation, he said in a statement. Stitt and O’Connor’s offices have been contacted for additional comment.
At the clemency hearing, Coddington apologized to the Hale family and told the board that he was a changed man.
“I’m clean, I know God, I’m not … I’m not a vicious murderer,” Coddington said, according to the AP. Coddington said Hale tried to get him to stop using drugs and had been a friend and “for that he lost his life.”
Hale’s son, Mitch Hale, read statements from himself and his sister, urging the board to reject the clemency request.
Mitch Hale told the board that he initially hated Coddington, but had since forgiven him.
“I forgive James Coddington, but my forgiveness does not release him from the consequences of his actions,” Mitch Hale said.
The board was told by Assistant Oklahoma Attorney General Caroline Hunt that Coddington killed Hale to rob him and to avoid going to prison.
Rolls, his attorney, said Coddington, who was 24 at the time, had been impaired by years of alcohol and drug abuse that began when he was a baby and his father put beer and whiskey into his baby bottles.
Coddington “exemplifies the principle of redemption,” Rolls wrote in the clemency petition, which detailed his remorse and exemplary behavior while on death row.
“He takes full responsibility for his actions and the consequences of those actions. He has repented and abandoned his prior life. He has remorse for his actions against Albert Hale, for the suffering Mr. Hale experienced, and for the suffering Mr. Hale’s loved ones continue to experience.”
It said that Coddington “has lived his transformation on death row. His sobriety, service, and compliance with rules of the society in which he lives are documented. The man the jury convicted and sentenced to death no longer exists.”
Oklahoma ended a de facto moratorium on capital punishment brought on by concerns about the state’s execution methods with the execution of John Grant in October 2021.
Witnesses said Grant convulsed repeatedly on the gurney and vomited before he was declared dead, but three more executions have been carried out since without noticeable complications.
Richard Glossip, the lead plaintiff in the failed lawsuit challenging the state’s execution protocol whose execution is set for September 22, was just hours away from being executed in September 2015 when officials realized they had received the wrong lethal injection drug.
It later emerged that the same wrong drug had been used to put Charles Warner to death earlier that year. These mix-ups followed the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April 2014.
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