Maybe Oklahoma Should Stop Trying to Execute Jeffrey David Matthews

There is a worldwide shortage of sodium thiopental, the first drug in the three drug series most states use to put prisoners to death.  It is an anesthetic, reportedly manufactured by only one company – Hospira – and has legitimate medical uses, so one hopes that during this period of scarcity execution chambers are at the bottom of the waiting list.  This shortage probably accounts for the attempt by Oklahoma last night to substitute a different drug – Brevital, a form of methohexital sodium – for its scheduled execution of Jeffrey David Matthews.  The sodium thiopental that the Oklahoma Corrections Department had in stock was apparently past its expiration date.

Of course, the courts did not go for this, and Matthews’ execution was stayed for two months.  This is the third time Matthews’ execution has been postponed (the first two by 30-day reprieves from the Governor), and there are many compelling reasons that this stay should be made permanent.  As documented here, the case against Matthews is shaky, with no physical evidence and an investigation that involved what one investigator called “suspicious” evidence.  That same investigator has concluded that “there is a reasonable likelihood that Matthews is innocent.”  The star witness against Matthews alleges he was coerced into cooperating by a combination of beatings and threats, and has since recanted his testimony.  He now says Matthews was not involved in the crime.

Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-2 to deny clemency, and recently refused to reconsider.  The Governor is only allowed two reprieves, so there is little more he can do, officially at least.  But there has to be a way out of this mess.  Oklahoma officials should use this 60 days wisely, and find a way to once and for all stop the execution of Jeffrey David Matthews.

Can/Will Oklahoma Stop this Execution?

Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry has granted two month-long reprieves  for Jeffrey David Matthews.  Matthews’ case is deeply troubling,  but the Oklahoma Board of Pardons and Paroles voted 3-2 against commuting the death sentence, leaving the Governor with limited options.  Today, the Board refused to reconsider its vote, and Matthews is still set for execution next Tuesday, August 17.

Of the many disturbing aspects of Matthews’ case, the fact that he might be innocent certainly stands out.  Matthews was convicted largely on the statements of a star witness who has since recanted his trial testimony.  That witness, Tracy Dyer, alleged that he was beaten and threatened with death by prison guards if he didn’t cooperate in the case against Matthews.  A former Deputy Sheriff who took part in that investigation has stated that it was “sloppy” and that some of the evidence obtained was “suspicious”, and that he has seen another deputy “physically and verbally abuse prisoners many times.”

Governor Henry cannot grant clemency without a change in the Board’s vote, but he can use his power and influence, as chief executive of the state, to strongly urge the Board to reconsider.  And we can strongly urge the Governor to do just that.

Sloppy and Suspicious in Oklahoma

Jeffrey David Matthews was slated for execution on June 17, 2010, for the 1994 murder of Otis Earl Short, his great uncle. Governor Brad Henry granted a reprieve until July 20, and then, last week, stayed the execution again until August 17, in order to allow the authorities more time to review fingerprint evidence – evidence that was discovered just 10 days before this first execution date.

From the start of the trial process, the conviction of Matthews has been controversial.  There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and the quality of the police investigation into the crime was, according to one former officer, “sloppy” and “suspicious.” There is also a star witness who has recanted his trial testimony. (Sound familiar?)

When Matthews was tried in 1995, Tracy Dyer testified against him, and the jury sentenced Matthews to death.  But a year later, in 1996, Dyer retracted his testimony, now denying that Matthews had been involved in the murder. Dyer admitted to his own role in the crime, and that an unnamed accomplice shot Earl Short. He stated that he had testified against Matthews in order to avoid a death sentence, and also that guards had beaten him in jail and threatened him with further violence or death if he did not cooperate in the case against Matthews. In the 1999 retrial, despite Dyer’s new testimony, Jeffrey Matthews was again convicted and sentenced to die.

But in 2007, Michael Mars, a former Deputy Sheriff involved in investigating the crime signed a sworn affidavit saying that “there is a reasonable likelihood that Matthews is innocent”.  He also backed up Dyer’s claims about threats and violence in prison, stating “I can attest that I have seen a detention deputy both physically and verbally abuse prisoners many times.”

Putting Jeffery Matthews to death would be a travesty.  Executive clemency exists to prevent miscarriages of justice that the courts fail to address.  After such a “sloppy” and “suspicious” investigation, and with such clear doubts about Matthews’ guilt, Governor Henry should grant clemency and commute the death sentence.