Oklahoma executed 50-year-old James Coddington on Thursday morning, marking the state’s first killing since a federal judge allowed it to continue using a lethal injection method that has resulted in several botched executions.
“To all my family and friends, lawyers, everyone who’s been around me and loved me, thank you,” Coddington said while strapped to the gurney. “Gov. Stitt, I don’t blame you and I forgive you,” he added, referring to Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, who declined to commute Coddington’s death sentence to life without the possibility of parole as the state’s Pardon and Parole Board had recommended.
Coddington then lifted his head and offered a thumbs-up to his lawyer, Emma Rolls, according to an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution. After being injected with the first of three drugs, Coddington’s “breathing became labored and his chest hitched several times,” the AP reported.
Before he was killed, Coddington was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the state’s lethal injection protocol, which is currently under appeal. Even as the case moves through the appeals process, Oklahoma is pushing to execute 24 more people over the next two years. The litigation centers around the question of whether the lethal three-drug cocktail used in Oklahoma violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
There is ample evidence that it does. Autopsies of people killed in this way show signs of pulmonary edema, a condition where the lungs fill with fluid, which can create the sensation of drowning or suffocating. Experts for the state argued at trial that a sedative used in the lethal injection prevents individuals from feeling pain, but there are signs suggesting otherwise. John Grant, the first person executed in Oklahoma after a yearslong moratorium on the killings, lifted his back off the gurney, vomited and convulsed after being injected with the drugs.
“If we saw this in a patient in the operating room — I can’t imagine seeing it, but if we did — we would assume that the patient was awake, and we would do something about it,” Gail Van Norman, a professor of anesthesiology and a witness for the plaintiffs, testified at trial.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot ultimately sided with the state, as the courts often do in cases involving methods of execution. He acknowledged that many individuals executed with Oklahoma’s method experience pulmonary edema and that the sedative used to block them from feeling pain was “not the drug of choice for maintaining prolonged deep anesthesia.” But it was good enough, Friot decided, and Oklahoma could get back to killing those on death row.
Coddington was executed as punishment for killing his friend Albert Hale while under the influence of drugs and deep in a struggle with addiction. He quickly confessed to the crime, expressed remorse and even contemplated forgoing a trial until a lawyer convinced him otherwise. He demonstrated model behavior while incarcerated on death row, maintaining his sobriety and earning rare privileges like communal recreation time and the opportunity to complete his GED diploma.
“I can’t apologize enough for what I did,” Coddington said at his clemency hearing earlier this month. Hale “was one of my friends, and he tried his best to help me,” Coddington continued.
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-2 to recommend that Stitt, the governor, reduce Coddington’s sentence to life without the possibility of parole. A former head of Oklahoma’s prison system and a woman who was robbed by Coddington also urged Stitt to allow him to live. Two of Hale’s children and a grandchild opposed granting clemency.
On Wednesday, the day before Coddington’s scheduled execution, Stitt denied the request for clemency without providing an explanation for the decision.
“I am afraid that the Pardon and Parole Board hearings will be moot exercises. Stitt has made it clear he will not grant clemency,” the Rev. Don Heath, the chair of the Oklahoma Coalition To Abolish the Death Penalty, said in a statement. “He has a hard heart.”
Like many people executed in the U.S., Coddington grew up in an abusive and unstable home. According to a clemency petition written by his lawyer, his mother was in and out of prison throughout his childhood, so he bounced between living with his father and grandmother, both of whom were poor and lived in barely habitable homes. Coddington’s father brutally beat him as an infant and sometimes put alcohol in his bottle, either to stop him from crying or for entertainment, according to Coddington’s siblings.
The abuse was so bad that Kathy Johnson, Coddington’s half-sister, took him and ran away from home when she was 14 years old and he was just over the age of 1.
“The 15 month old infant appears to be perhaps eight or nine months old. He does not walk but he does crawl,” the administrator of the Noble County Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services wrote in a 1973 report. “Numerous insect bites were seen on the infant. His bottom was completely raw due to not having a diaper change.”
After a brief stint in foster care, Coddington was returned to his father, where he was exposed to drugs and alcohol. He and his siblings survived by eating food out of dumpsters behind fast-food restaurants. His father abandoned the family when he was 7 years old.
Coddington was admitted to an inpatient treatment center at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital when he was 8, where intake notes described him as feeling “abandoned, insecure, confused, very angry and sad.”
“He has had no consistent parenting, modeling or limit setting. He is now inappropriately expressing his anger and defying authority figures,” the intake notes read. “He is at times a very affectionate young boy who is very much wanting and needing love, affection, and security. At the same time, he is also undoubtedly very afraid of close relationships because of his experience in the past.”
The notes show that Coddington made progress during his time in the treatment center. But he soon returned to live with his mother, where drugs were constantly present and supervision was minimal. An older brother later told a forensic examiner that he taught Coddington how to shoot up drugs because he was afraid that without instruction, Coddington would inject too much and overdose.
Coddington sought treatment for drug addiction at least twice, starting at the age of 17. He completed drug treatment programs but struggled with maintaining sobriety on his own.
After spending several years in prison as a young adult for a burglary charge, he got a job at a salvage yard for Honda vehicles and tried to get his life on track. He met Hale at work, and the two became friends.
In March 1997, Coddington went on a crack cocaine binge to cope with a painful breakup. On March 5, he robbed a convenience store in an attempt to get money for more drugs but still came up short. He went to Hale’s home, unarmed, to ask about borrowing money from his friend. Hale refused, told Coddington to get help and asked him to leave. Coddington, who was under the influence of crack, picked up a hammer that was sitting in Hale’s kitchen, hit his friend several times in the head with it and stole $520 from his pocket. Hale died from his injuries the next day.
Coddington was arrested days later for robbing convenience stores and confessed to the killing as well. At first, he wanted to just enter a guilty plea, but his lawyer convinced him to go to trial, where he would have the opportunity to express his remorse.
Clinical psychologist J.R. Smith, who interviewed Coddington after he was arrested, concluded that his actions were “impulsive and a direct result of his drug induced psychosis” rather than premeditated. A jury never heard Smith’s assessment because the trial judge blocked Smith from testifying that Coddington was incapable of forming the intent required for a first-degree murder conviction.
An appeals court later ruled that this violated Coddington’s constitutional right to present a defense but that the error was “harmless.”