OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Board of Pardon and Parole on Wednesday voted to recommend clemency for a death row inmate who has admitted to beating to death a friend and co-worker who refused to loan him $50 to buy cocaine.
The board voted 3-2 to recommend Gov. Kevin Stitt grant clemency to James Coddington, 50, who was convicted and sentenced to die for killing 73-year-old Albert Hale inside Hale's home in Choctaw in 1997. Coddington beat Hale on the head at least three times with a hammer.
Stitt said Wednesday that he hasn't been formally briefed on Coddington's case, but that with any clemency recommendation, he meets with prosecutors, defense attorneys and the victim's family before making a decision.
“Sometimes there's not even a question of guilt — they're admitting it, but do they deserve mercy?" Stitt told The Associated Press. “Those are all tough questions. What does mercy look like? What does justice look like? And I really take that very seriously and get by myself once I get all the facts and make that decision."
State Attorney General John O'Connor said in a statement that he will oppose the recommendation.
An emotional Coddington, who spoke by video and appeared on the verge of tears, apologized to the Hale family and told the board that he is a different man today.
“I'm clean, I know God, I'm not ... I'm not a vicious murderer,” Coddington said.
“If this ends today with my death sentence, OK,” Coddington said before the vote.
Coddington said Hale tried to get him to stop using drugs and had been a friend and "for that he lost his life.”
Hale's son, Mitch Hale, read statements from himself and sister, Patricia Carey, urging the board to reject the clemency request.
“Please give my dad justice and my family closure. Give James Coddington the same sentence he gave my dad,” according to the statement from Carey.
Hale told the board that he initially hated Coddington, but let go of the hatred.
“I forgive James Coddington, but my forgiveness does not release him from the consequences of his actions,” Hale said in urging the board to reject the clemency request.
Assistant Oklahoma Attorney General Caroline Hunt told the board that Coddington killed Hale to rob him and to avoid going to prison.
“There will be no justice if Mr. Coddington receives clemency from his death sentence,” Hunt said.
Defense Attorney Emma Rolls told the panel that Coddington, who was 24 at the time, was impaired by years of alcohol and drug abuse that began when he was an infant and his father put beer and whiskey into his baby bottles.
“The Board has acknowledged that his case exemplifies the circumstances for which clemency exists,” Rolls said in a statement following the hearing. "We urge Governor Stitt to adopt the Board’s recommendation.”
Coddington was twice sentenced to death in the case, the second time in 2008 after his initial sentence was overturned on appeal.
The clemency recommendation now goes to Stitt, a Republican in his first term who is up for reelection this year. He has approved one clemency request, that of Julius Jones, and rejected one, that of Bigler Stouffer, who was put to death in December.
Coddington is set to be put to death Aug. 25, the first of six inmates scheduled for execution after a federal judge rejected a challenge by them and 19 other death row inmates to the state’s lethal injection method.
The chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Rev. Don Heath, said he is “surprised but pleased” by the board's recommendation.
"We ask Gov. Stitt to read the clemency packet, to watch the clemency hearing ... and we hope that he will allow James Coddington to spend the rest of his natural life behind bars,” Heath said in a statement.
Oklahoma had one of the nation’s busiest death chambers until problems in 2014 and 2015 led to a de facto moratorium. Richard Glossip was just hours from being executed in September 2015 when prison officials realized they received the wrong lethal drug. It was later learned the same wrong drug had been used to execute another man in January 2015.
The drug mix-ups followed a botched execution in April 2014 in which inmate Clayton Lockett struggled on a gurney before dying 43 minutes into his lethal injection — and after the state’s prisons chief ordered executioners to stop.
Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.
Ken Miller, The Associated Press