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Former ODOC director: Don’t kill James Coddington

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Don Heath
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The unit that houses James Coddington at Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Taken July 30, 2022.

A former head of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections says the state should not kill a death row inmate scheduled for execution in less than a month.

Justin Jones was director of ODOC from 2005 to 2013. He said in an interview with Public Radio Tulsa that James Coddington, convicted of murdering 73-year-old Albert Hale in Choctaw in 1997, should not get a lethal injection Aug. 25.

“I don’t think it would serve the best interest of the state of Oklahoma to execute Mr. Coddington,” said Jones.

Jones said he may have met Coddington on death row during his tenure at ODOC but he doesn’t remember it. He studied free of charge Coddington’s records at the request of a federal public defender and wrote an affidavit in 2021 for Coddington’s clemency packet. While he’s written parole recommendations, Jones said the clemency affidavit for Coddington is the only statement of its kind he’s written.

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Justin Jones
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Coddington clemency packet
A portion of an affidavit written by Jones in 2021

Jones said Coddington’s exemplary behavior in prison means that Coddington could make a difference to other inmates if his sentence is commuted to life in prison without parole by Gov. Kevin Stitt.

“He’s going to have an influence at his age and his experience and what I believe is his commitment to be productive no matter what situation is before him. It takes inmates like him to really balance out and be mentors to younger inmates who probably will get out at some point,” said Jones.

Jones said he saw oversaw 28 executions during his time as director. He describes himself as against capital punishment but unsure of his total commitment to that stance. He said his years of experience have shown him the punishment isn’t given out fairly.

“It really comes down to what county did you commit your crime in, who prosecuted you, and whether or not the victims in any particular case were adamant that the defendant receive the death penalty,” said Jones.

Coddington’s fiancée of more than two years, Angela Merrell, echoed that Coddington has changed. She said he was addicted to drugs when he murdered Hale and she knows from experience how drugs change people for the worse.

“My father and sister both died from drugs, and I had opportunities to see they were not themselves when they were on those drugs they ended up dying from. James seems to be the same way. He’s not that person I hear stories about from the night it happened,” said Merrell.

Stitt is considering clemency for Coddington after the state parole board voted last week during a hearing to spare his life. Before the 3-2 vote, board members expressed concerns about how Coddington’s abusive childhood led to the addiction issues Coddington and others say were behind Hale’s murder. Board member Edward Konieczny said the abuse was documented and 'extraordinary.'

Other death row inmates executed in the past have had childhood addiction issues, according to attorneys. Notably, Gilbert Postelle, Coddington’s cellmate for more than a decade and fellow prison orderly, was put to death Feb. 17 after a nearly silent parole board vote.

Coddington’s attorney, Emma Rolls, said she would want Stitt to know as he considers the board’s recommendation that commuting Coddington’s death sentence wouldn’t be out of step with the beliefs of constituents.

“I think that sparing James’ life is completely compatible with Oklahoma values. I’m a lifelong Oklahoman, and I know this state believes that people can change and they believe in the principles of redemption,” said Rolls.

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.