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'A changed man': Attorneys and advocates call on Oklahoma to spare the life of death row inmate James Coddington

Chris Polansky / KWGS News
Federal public defender Emma Rolls, counsel for Oklahoma death row inmate James Coddington, addresses reporters at the Oklahoma Capitol in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, one week before Coddington was scheduled to address the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board at a clemency hearing.

Attorneys and advocates for Oklahoma death row inmate James Coddington held a press conference at the state Capitol Tuesday, one week ahead of a clemency hearing for the convicted murderer who supporters claim is a "changed man" not deserving of execution.

"If our society believes in the principle of redemption, then James Coddington’s life must be spared," said Emma Rolls, a federal public defender who represents Coddington.

"The man the jury convicted and sentenced to death no longer exists. If anyone is deserving of mercy, James Coddington is," Rolls said.

Coddington, scheduled to be executed on Aug. 25, was convicted of the 1997 murder of friend and coworker Albert Hale in Choctaw, Okla. After his initial conviction was overturned on appeal, he was found guilty by a second jury of bludgeoning Hale to death with a hammer after being denied a loan.

Rolls said Coddington admits to having killed Hale, but has felt great remorse and demonstrated good conduct in prison for decades. Rolls said Coddington was beaten, drugged, starved, abused and neglected throughout his entire childhood and became addicted to cocaine at age 11. It was in a drug-induced psychosis, Rolls said, that Coddington killed Hale.

In a 139-page clemency petition, attorneys note that Coddington's bid for mercy includes positive attestations from former Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones, as well as two retired corrections officers who oversaw Coddington.

"Are we the Bible belt or the death belt?" asked the Rev. Don Heath, an Edmond-based Disciples of Christ minister and chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"God sees every person as a beloved child of God. The state sees Coddington... as an evil psychopath. He deserves to die. That's the state's frame," Heath said.

Cindy Nguyen, ACLU of Oklahoma policy director, called for mercy for Coddington and every other inmate on death row.

"The death penalty is racist, it is arbitrary, it is costly and it is error-prone," Nguyen said, noting that if Oklahoma's highest-in-the-nation execution rate were successful in increasing public safety, "then we would be the safest place in the world."

"And yet we do not see that," Nguyen said.

Rolls said Coddington plans to address the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on his own behalf at his clemency hearing scheduled for next Tuesday, July 26. Should the board vote to recommend clemency, it would be up to Gov. Kevin Stitt to decide whether to accept the recommendation and commute Coddington's sentence to life without parole, or reject it and have Coddington put to death via lethal injection on his currently scheduled execution date next month.

Coddington would be the first man killed in the death chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester since a federal judge ruled in June that, despite a series of botched executions, the state's lethal injection protocol does not violate the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

State Attorney General John O'Connor has requested execution dates for 25 men, all of which have been granted by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. Beginning with Coddington on Aug. 25, Oklahoma plans to kill one prisoner roughly every four weeks through the end of 2024.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.