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As members agree on guilt, parole board votes for clemency due to concerns over Oklahoma’s death penalty drugs

parole board
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board. Left to right: Scott Williams, Kelly Doyle, Adam Luck, Larry Morris, and Richard Smothermon

The majority of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board voted to give a man they all think is guilty clemency because of problems with past executions in the state.

The case of death row inmate Bigler Stouffer went before the board Wednesday. After several hours where parties on either side of the case spoke, the parole board had a discussion about the current state of the death penalty in Oklahoma.

Former prison warden Scott Williams started by asking board attorney Kyle Counts if members would be able to meet with Department of Corrections staff to discuss Oklahoma’s lethal injection drugs. The last three executions that used the drugs were botched.

“For me, as a board, I think it’s something that we have a pretty thorough discussion about in the future,” said Williams.

Member and former probation officer Larry Morris took a stronger stance. He said with a federal lawsuit on the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection drugs pending, the parole board should not even be considering clemency cases.

“If you look at the last one of these clemency hearings that we had, and that inmate was executed, and the description of it…it leaves a lot of doubt in my mind that we should even be doing these things period,” said Morris.

Former prosecutor Richard Smothermon equated Morris’ objection with a moral argument against the death penalty, which Morris refuted. He said it was about being asked to participate in a punishment that may be ruled unconstitutional in the future.

“That process is obviously flawed. We’ve had individuals on the table suffering for twenty and thirty minutes apiece. I don’t think any humane society ought to be executing people that way,” said Morris. “Are we gonna put another guy on the table and have him suffer for twenty and thirty minutes?”

The drug most at the center of the debate, midazolam, was already ruled acceptable in 2015 by the Supreme Court of the United States, but lawsuits against the drug that has a 22.4% botch rate in executions continue. A February hearing is set in front of federal judge Stephen P. Friot for Oklahoma’s suit.

Social worker Kelly Doyle said she’ll vote for clemency because the governor should be involved in death penalty decisions.

“In my opinion, with executions the way that they currently went down, I don’t feel comfortable making a decision the governor isn’t included in,” said Doyle. “He should absolutely be involved in making death penalty decisions in our state.”

She expressed vehement frustration at the back-to-back lawsuits she has been the target of filed by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and Attorney General John O’Connor. She said some parole board members have been able to speak freely, but she hasn’t had that opportunity.

“Others have us been silenced, because if we say anything, we’ll have litigation put against us.”

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When it came time to vote, all the members on the board said they believed Stouffer was guilty.

“I believe he committed this horrible murder,” said Doyle.

Doyle cited Stouffer’s age of 79 years, and said she believes he can spend the rest of his life in prison without being a danger to society.

Williams appeared to make up his mind just before he cast his vote.

“I do have questions about the process,” said Williams. “I’m wrestling with my vote. I really do feel Mr. Stouffer is guilty.”

He voted against clemency with Smothermon. Adam Luck, Doyle, and Morris voted for clemency.

The board’s suggestion of life without parole will pass to Gov. Kevin Stitt.

Stouffer was convicted of the 1985 murder of Putnam City school teacher Linda Reaves. His execution is scheduled for Dec. 9 and will go forward unless Stitt takes up the board’s suggestion.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.