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Death chamber chaplain recounts James Coddington's final moments, calls for abolition of capital punishment

The Rev. Don Heath speaks at the Oklahoma Capitol on July 19, 2022, at a press conference expressing support for clemency for death row inmate James Coddington. Heath was present in the death chamber Thursday morning as Coddington's spiritual adviser during the condemned man's execution.
Chris Polansky / KWGS News
The Rev. Don Heath speaks at the Oklahoma Capitol on July 19, 2022, at a press conference expressing support for clemency for death row inmate James Coddington. Heath was present in the death chamber Thursday morning as Coddington's spiritual adviser during the condemned man's execution.

The Rev. Don Heath, a Disciples of Christ minister at Edmond Trinity Christian Church and chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, talked and prayed with death row inmate James Coddington inside the death chamber during Coddington's Thursday morning execution at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. Heath spoke with Public Radio Tulsa's Chris Polansky shortly afterwards.

POLANSKY: Can you kind of paint a picture, a play-by-play, of from the moment you saw Mr. Coddington today through the process?

HEATH: Sure. I was taken into the execution chamber at 9:30. The execution's at 10, and time of death was around 10:15.

When I come in, he's already strapped down to a gurney lying on his back with his arms extended — actually like he's on a cross, except lying flat on his back. He has an IV going. The first — He's been very calm all along. He's a kind, gentle person.

His concern for the last week has just been, "I wish the governor would make a decision. This is just hanging over me and I would just like to know one way or the other." And Stitt didn't make his decision until yesterday and then didn't give a reason why he denied clemency.

For the first 10 or 15 minutes, James was just talking about that. He didn't understand why Stitt waited so long. He didn't understand. He was disturbed that he didn't give a reason. He questioned, "What's the purpose of the pardon and parole process if [Stitt]'s not going to follow their recommendations and if he's not going to look at, you know, my changed life?"

He said he hasn't changed his life for the Pardon and Parole Board, he did it because he needed to do it. He was disappointed. He met his — He accepted his fate. He said he's being punished for a heinous crime, and he accepts that. He thinks he has a lot more to give, he could contribute to the community here, but if that's — you know, if that's the governor's will, that's the governor's will. There's nothing he can do about it.

Then I held like a mini religious service for him the last 10 minutes before the curtain went up at 10 o'clock. I told him he was a beloved child of God, that every man on death row is a beloved child of God, that Gov. Stitt is a child of God, and that God forgives his sins.

Then I read, basically, the "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" committal service that you do at a cemetery. Prayed for him. Talked to him about the people that love him. And his last words were he talked about, expressed his love for his fiancee and her three children, for his brother and his niece, for his attorney and her investigator, for me, for the other people who supported him.

And then I read Scripture to him. Once he gave his last words, I read the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. Then I read from Isaiah 40: "Comfort, oh comfort, my people." It talks about the prophet Isaiah says that God forgives your sin. And about that time he lost consciousness and I continued to read Scripture.

He started snoring after three or four minutes, and then one of the physicians or whoever comes in and shakes him to make sure he's unconscious and then they start the paralytic. And then after the paralytic has taken effect, they start the potassium that stops his heart. And then the [Oklahoma Department of Corrections] director, Scott Crow, came in at 10:15 and declared him dead.

POLANSKY: It looked to us as though maybe he had already passed and was there for a few moments before the doctor came in, and it looked as though you spoke to him, not from the Bible. What did you say to him?

HEATH: I'm trying to remember. After I read the first couple Scriptures and maybe it was before he started snoring, but then he spoke up and said something. I think it was that he asked God to forgive his sins and that he forgives Gov. Stitt, and I said, "In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, your sins are forgiven."

POLANSKY: In your statement yesterday, the coalition statement*, you said that you were "honestly angry." Can you talk more about that?

HEATH: I was — I think you're referring to my immediate reaction to Gov. Stitt's statement—

POLANSKY: That's right.

HEATH: —denying clemency. I thought it was a shallow, insincere statement that showed no thought. Did not give a reason why he denied clemency. The reason he gave was that the jury sentenced him to death. Well, yes — yeah, that's why they're all on death row. But you go through a Pardon and Parole Board process, and the Pardon and Parole Board listened to his story, listened to the state present its story, listened to the victim's family, listened to Coddington, and the Pardon and Parole Board recommended clemency. And Stitt didn't respond to any of that. He just ignored it.

I talked to James today. He was saying, "If he's just going to ignore the Pardon and Parole Board and not give any reason for denying clemency, he's not going to grant anybody clemency, and this whole process is just futile."

POLANSKY: The Hale family spoke afterwards, and they said it gave them no pleasure to watch James die but they believed it was the right thing, and they believe that he did not have any remorse. And they cited that he didn't mention Albert Hale in his last words, didn't have any message to the family. Do you have any sense of why that was, or what he was feeling in that regard?

HEATH: They don't know James. James was remorseful. James expressed his remorse repeatedly. He said today that he accepted the punishment for his crime. He knew what he did was wrong, he deserved to die for it. He hoped that the governor would grant him clemency and he'd be allowed to live, but he expressed remorse repeatedly. And if they question his sincerity? They don't know him, they don't know what they're talking about.

POLANSKY: Now from an advocacy standpoint: We have 24 upcoming executions over the next two years and change. What is the advocacy strategy, and are you hopeful?

HEATH: Well, a Methodist church in Oklahoma City has put up 25 crosses. Clark Memorial United Methodist Church at 23rd and MacArthur put up 25 full-size crosses right on the road on 23rd Street, and they're painting one of them red today. And if clemency is granted, they'll paint one green. But one today has been painted red, and I'm afraid, honestly, that we're going to have 25 red crosses in a couple of years.

And my hope is not with this governor or this attorney general. It's that the people of Oklahoma will be repulsed by this and recognize that this is the senseless killing of a defenseless person who committed a crime 25 years ago. I guess I would say I never think of James or Donald [Grant, executed Jan. 27, 2022] as the worst of the worst. I think of them as "the least of these." To me, the worst of the worst is the rich and the powerful who use the state machinery of death to kill defenseless people. And I'm afraid that they're going to have their way until the people say "Stop."

- - -

*“I am surprised, and, quite honestly, angry at Gov. Stitt’s rejection of clemency for James Coddington. Stitt’s statement does not give a reason for his denial—it simply states that a jury convicted Coddington of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. I can only infer that Stitt believes that clemency has no place for death-row inmates. There is no mercy or forgiveness in his heart for James Coddington. 

Coddington is a changed man. He has been a model prisoner for 15 years. He has repeatedly acknowledged his crime and expressed remorse for killing Albert Hale. This is the strongest case that can be made for clemency.

We have 25 executions scheduled over the next 29 months. I am afraid that the Pardon and Parole Board hearings will be moot exercises. Stitt has made it clear he will not grant clemency.”

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.