James Coddington’s Clemency Request Offers Chance to Recognize Death Row Rehabilitation and Redemption | Austin Sarat | Verdict
Oklahoma plans to execute James Coddington on August 25, the first of 25 people the state hopes to put to death over the next 29 months. He was convicted of murdering his friend Albert Hale in a drug-related robbery in 1997.
Coddington has filed for clemency with the Oklahoma Board of Pardons and Parole, which will hold a hearing on his request on Tuesday.
His clemency case is simple but controversial. Coddington accepts responsibility for his crime and maintains that he is genuinely remorseful. He says he has been rehabilitated and is a changed person.
Coddington’s plea for clemency is important for opponents of the death penalty who have done little to persuade governors and presidents to be merciful in capital matters.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since the beginning of 2010, only 49 death row inmates have been pardoned or have had their sentences commuted. This represents a dramatic change from decades ago, when governors granted clemency in 20-25% of capital cases they reviewed.
Rejecting appeals from religious leaders, former prosecutors and even judges and jurors, governors now jealously guard their power of clemency and exercise it sparingly.
Proponents of what might be called a “retributive” theory of clemency have prevailed by persuading governors and presidents that, as Kathleen Dean Moore puts it, “the only good and sufficient reason to pardon a criminal is that justice is best served by forgiving”. only by punishing in this particular case. Clemency is a “backup system that works outside the rules to correct errors…”.
When pardoning or commuting death sentences, chief executives have eschewed arguments about rehabilitation and redemption in favor of granting clemency in cases where there are concerns about wrongful conviction. or any other element of injustice or procedural error.
Typical was the case of Joseph Murphy in 2011, which revolved around an argument about injustice. Murphy’s death sentence was commuted by Ohio Governor John Kasich, who explained, “Given Joseph Murphy’s brutally abusive upbringing and the relatively young age at which he committed his terrible crime , the death penalty is not appropriate in this case.
Similarly, in a 2017 commutation granted by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson to Jason McGehee, Hutchinson said he was moved by the apparent injustice in the “disparity of the sentence given to Mr. McGehee from the sentences of his co-accused”.
Since 2010, only Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has used his power of clemency to save the life of a death row inmate on the grounds of post-conviction rehabilitation and redemption.
Bevin commuted Leif Halvorsen’s death sentence to life in prison without parole because, according to a report by the American Bar Association, the inmate had “turned his life around in prison.” There, “he obtained two university degrees and served as a counselor for young prisoners who needed advice. He repeatedly expressed remorse and deep regret for his crime. Prison officials, religious leaders and others have joined in backing his request for clemency. »
As Governor Bevin said, “Leif has a powerful voice that needs to be heard by more people.”
Coddington’s plea for clemency is a reminder of a tradition in which clemency was granted to people who had changed their lives while in prison. In this tradition, clemency rewarded rehabilitation and recognized redemption.
Elizabeth Rapaport says that a redemptive approach to clemency treats “punishment…as part of a dynamic, at least potentially transformative process”. Using this approach, business leaders are interested in what happens to prisoners and what they do once their sentence begins.
From this perspective, prisoners who undergo moral transformation, acknowledge their wrongdoings, and demonstrate a desire to serve the community and reconcile with those they have wronged have more reason to receive clemency than those who who do not, regardless of the correctness of their original conviction and sentence.
Clemency as redemption, Rapaport notes, “rejects the Manichean division of people into good and evil…. Redemptively, free citizens are also wicked, weak, selfish, and bad risk takers. And transgressors, like the rest of us, have the potential for morally adequate lives and lives of high moral achievement.
Rapaport concludes that “hope is also a redeeming value of criminal justice: the example of leniency…would foster hope for liberation and reconciliation among those who are willing to take on the rigors of self-transformation.”
In his clemency petition, Coddington’s lawyers say he “exemplifies the principles of redemption”.
“While on death row,” they claim, “James achieved and maintained sobriety, breaking the cycle of addiction that plagued his life from early childhood. He maintained a clear lead for over 15 years. Based on this exemplary behavior, James earned the trusted position of run-man. He works daily to be of service to all with whom he interacts.
Redemption is indicated, argue his lawyers, because “he takes full responsibility for his actions and the consequences of those actions. He repented and gave up his previous life. He is remorseful for his actions against Albert Hale, for the suffering suffered by Mr. Hale, and for the suffering that those close to Mr. Hale continue to suffer. James acknowledges the consequences of his drug-fueled actions that have reverberated through multiple families – including his own – to this day. »
They conclude that “James experienced his transformation on death row. His sobriety, his service and his respect for the rules of the society in which he lives are documented. The man the jury found guilty and sentenced to death no longer exists.
In the past decade, the Oklahoma Board of Pardons and Paroles and its governors have granted clemency petitions in only two landmark cases.
In 2010, Governor Brad Henry commuted Richard Tandy Smith’s sentence on the grounds that life without parole was a fairer punishment than execution.
And in November 2021, Governor Kevin Stitt commuted Julius Jones’ death sentence. He did so after the Pardons and Parole Board twice recommended by a 3-1 vote that he do so.
Several council members said they had doubts about the reliability of Jones’ conviction and, according to a New York Times report, his request for clemency received support from several prominent conservatives, including “Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union; Timothy Head, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition; and several Republican state legislators.
In this context, Coddington’s request for clemency is a long shot.
But it offers Oklahoma the chance to revive a tradition of recognizing the rehabilitation and redemption of death row inmates. This tradition embodies the belief that, as Bryan Stevenson says, “each of us is more than the worse something we’ve ever done.