Proposed OK Legislature Would Prohibit Commutation in Certain Situations

Tracy Tiernan - April 9, 2022 - Criminal Defense

State Representative Orlando recently presented House Bill 39303 in Oklahoma before the House Criminal-Judiciary Committee. If signed into law, the bill would prohibit prisoners on death from seeking commutation or raising innocence claims to the Pardon and Parole Board.

Dozens of measures focused on reshaping the structure of criminal law in Oklahoma are currently in the works.

Other Measures That Were Cut

Earlier, the last date for the bill to leave committee came and went. Countless bills including one that lowered the minimum age to be hired to 18 were cut. Some bills barely made it to the next stage. House Bill 3903 is one measure which narrowly passed through the corresponding Judiciary Committee. The measure will block death row prisoners from seeking commutation or presenting evidence of innocence to the Pardon and Parole Board. Instead, the board would be limited in recommending clemency to death row prisoners for reasons of either “lenience” or mercy.”

The Motivation Behind the Measure

Senator Leewright, who authored the bill, stated that if it becomes law, it would limit death row inmates to receiving just one competency hearing at the time that death is “imminent.” The measure would hopefully reduce the number of death row inmates and advocates pursuing multiple competency hearings in an attempt to delay executions and get off of death row. Senator Leewright commented that while competency can change, each time a competency decision must be made, the surviving loved ones must be dragged through the trauma again.

Senator Leewright has also commented that the measure was requested by the state’s Attorney General who is attempting to lower the number of times that surviving loved ones must go to court after a suspect is convicted. This repeated trauma, Senator Leewright argues, prevents families from ever fully moving past the loss. 

The Role of Federal and State Law

Both federal and state laws have declared it unconstitutional for an incompetent person to be executed for an offense because they do not understand the seriousness of the offense, and because the person charged cannot rationally understand why they are being subjected to such a penalty. 

Commentary on the Regulation

Given the seriousness of the matter, opposing sides expressed strong viewpoints. For one, Democratic legislators have expressed strong opposition to this change. Many opponents criticize the bill as retaliation for a previous death sentence victim having had his death sentence turned to a sentence of life without parole.

Additionally, the legislator tasked with overseeing the bill for the attorney’s general office argues that the board tasked with pardon and parole issues lack the resources to adequately consider claims of innocence that prisoners should pursue relief through appellate measures.

State prisoners in Oklahoma who received a conviction during a trial are currently entitled to an appeal following their conviction. This process, however, is a painstaking and long one. Furthermore, this process comes with no promise of a conviction’s reversal. 

Contact a Knowledgeable Criminal Defense Attorney

This matter is just one of many complex changes to Oklahoma legislation over the last few years. If you or your loved one needs the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney, do not hesitate to contact Attorney Tracy Tiernan.

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