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With concerns around 'extraordinary' childhood abuse, parole board votes to spare James Coddington

James Coddington speaks to the parole board on Aug. 3, 2022
Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board
PPB livestream
James Coddington speaks to the parole board on Aug. 3, 2022

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted Wednesday to spare the life of a death row inmate.

James Coddington addressed the board himself and expressed remorse for killing his friend, 73-year-old Albert Hale, at Hale’s Choctaw residence in 1997 after Hale refused to give Coddington money for drugs.

“The person that he welcomed into his home was not me, it was a shell of me. It was a drug addict that didn’t deserve his friendship,” said Coddington.

Hale’s family spoke about their loss to the board. Son Mitch Hale said he’s forgiven Coddington but the murder devastated the family.

“Not only did he brutally kill a kind, gentle, elderly man, he also killed our family. When he took my father’s life, he completely destroyed the gathering place and tradition of five generations,” said Hale.

Board member Edward Konieczny, appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt in January, joined Richard Smothermon and Larry Morris in voting for clemency. Cathy Stocker and Scott Williams voted to deny clemency.

Konieczny cited exceptional childhood abuse, as well as Coddington’s age of 24 years at the time of the murder as concerns.

“I certainly want to hear from my colleagues. We’ve had a number of trainings and conversations around the maturation of a person’s brain and also the impact of abusive environments. In this particular case, it’s not just somebody suggesting that. We have documentation of what could be considered extraordinary drug and alcohol and physical and emotional abuse. I would just appreciate hearing from some of my other colleagues,” said Konieczny.

Coddington’s attorney, Emma Rolls, played a video deposition of Coddington’s mother, Gala Hood. In the deposition taken in 2000, Hood said Coddington was given alcohol as a child by his brothers and beaten by his father who was drunk most of the time. Hood met Coddington's father through connections she made while in prison, said Rolls.

Smothermon, who has thus far voted to deny clemency to every death row inmate, said how people endure abuse in similar situations matters to him.

“Given that environment, what is the resulting actions of other people or children that were in that environment and how did they turn out?”

Smothermon didn’t immediately respond to a request for clarification on his statement, though in her presentation Rolls detailed that all of Coddington’s siblings struggled with addiction.

Other Oklahoma inmates executed in the past also had documented chaotic childhoods. Schizophrenic Donald Grant, who was the first person put to death in the country in 2022, had two brothers who are also convicted murderers but who got lighter sentences.

Morris didn’t justify his vote in favor of clemency.

Cathy Stocker, appointed by Stitt in March, said Coddington’s background was already considered in court and so she voted to deny clemency.

Before voting no, Scott Williams acknowledged that Coddington, who earned his GED in prison in 2002, had changed for the better.

“Just from what we’ve seen, I’d say there’s definitely been some change there and he’s had an exemplary record for a number of years. At the same time, that doesn’t take away from all of the facts and everything we have to consider today,” said Williams.

Williams cited victims' rights and public safety as additional factors.

The board’s clemency suggestion will go to Stitt to decide. Coddington is still scheduled for execution Aug. 25.

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.