The Cautionary Instruction: Politics and the death penalty

Friday, 25 April 2014 11:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

executionerstoll150The legal maneuvering in Oklahoma over the scheduled executions of two condemned men convicted of separate murders has taken a strange, but not entirely unusual turn. This week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court stepped in to delay the executions of Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner while they pursued their challenge to the state’s “secret” lethal injection methods. That is not unusual.

What is unusual is that the Oklahoma Supreme Court does not normally handle criminal matters. The Court of Criminal Appeals had refused to consider the request for a delay, leading to an uneasy confrontation between the two courts.

As politics and the death penalty intersect the issue of delay got even murkier.

The Oklahoma Attorney General called into question the Supreme Court’s authority and asked the Court to drop its stay. The Court rejected the request, and soon after Governor Mary Fallin issued an executive order asserting that the stay was “outside the constitutional authority” of the Supreme Court. She exercised her own constitutional authority to delay the executions by one week, meaning that the two men could both be put to death before their challenge to lethal injection is resolved.

This confrontation is only the latest in a long history of political wrangling over the death penalty. My book, The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States released this week by McFarland & Company, examines how the death penalty has evolved from a term of art utilized in the criminal justice system to cultural buzz words used to reveal a philosophy on issues of law and order.

The death penalty has become, in many ways, a symbolic political term that lends itself to the illusion of toughness, if you support the death penalty; and to the illusion of weakness if you do not support the death penalty.

The idea that a political candidate can establish her law and order bona fides by being pro-death penalty has enhanced the significance of the death penalty in American politics. As capital punishment has evolved into a political symbol, “Joe Six-Pack” at the corner bar can also confirm his tough, red-blooded, law-abiding persona through his support of the death penalty.

The death penalty has morphed into a hot-button political issue right up there with abortion, guns and taxes. That is why Oklahoma’s Governor, attorney general, Supreme Court Justices and appellate judges are involved in this race to the death chamber—a public spectacle that serves no other purpose than political aggrandizement.


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His book The Executioner's Toll, 2010 is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.

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