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Clemency denied for death row prisoner Ben Cole as attorneys work for trial

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Federal Public Defender
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Clemency hearing presentation
Ben Cole

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on Tuesday denied clemency to a man sentenced to death for murdering his baby daughter in 2002.

Ben Cole did not speak for himself at the board’s hearing, which his attorneys say tracks with Cole’s history of severe mental illness rooted in a horrifying childhood.

“He was a victim of continued sexual abuse, neglect, substance abuse, and again, this is a theme we are seeing in case after case,” said Federal Public Defender Emma Rolls.

If his execution goes forward Oct. 20, Cole will be the second man put to death by the state since lethal injections started up again after a federal trial on the constitutionality of the method. James Coddington, executed Aug. 25, was the first.

There’s at least one more opportunity for Cole’s execution to be halted. This week Judge Mike Hogan in Pittsburg County will hear evidence on whether or not Cole understands he’s been sentenced to death for his daughter’s murder. Rolls says Cole won't voluntarily leave his cell at Oklahoma State Penitentiary and hasn't communicated with his legal team in almost a decade.

“We will learn I believe on Friday if Mr. Cole will get a trial to determine whether he is competent to be executed,” said Rolls.

In its four to one vote, the parole board didn't comment on its decision to deny clemency. Former probation officer Larry Morris was the only member to vote for mercy.

Attorney General John O’Connor applauded the board’s decision, saying in a statement that an evaluation in July found Cole competent. O’Connor also noted the heinous nature of Cole’s crime.

Rolls agrees the crime was shocking but said people should remember men like Cole were once defenseless too.

“We as a society say we want to protect vulnerable children. I think we need to remember these men were themselves vulnerable children who never got protection. And now just to throw them away and toss them aside, it’s just not in step with evolving standards of decency,” 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.