Oklahoma’s governor has declined to grant clemency to death row inmate James Coddington, whose scheduled execution Thursday is set to be the first of 25 the state plans to carry out through 2024.
Coddington, 50, was sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of Albert Hale – a man he considered his friend – while struggling with a crack cocaine addiction. His attorneys and advocates had called for his sentence to be commuted to life in prison, pointing to his case as one of redemption. Coddington long has expressed sincere remorse for killing Hale, they say, and has worked to transform his life while on death row.
Coddington’s remorse, an “exemplary” prison record and his traumatic childhood were among the mitigating factors his supporters highlighted before the Oklahoma Board of Pardons and Parole this month recommended clemency in his case, leaving the final decision up to GOP Gov. Kevin Stitt.
“After thoroughly reviewing arguments and evidence presented by all sides of the case, Governor Kevin Stitt has denied the Pardon and Parole Board’s clemency recommendation for James Allen Coddington,” a brief statement from the governor’s office said.
Emma Rolls, one of Coddington’s attorneys, said the inmate and his legal team were “profoundly disheartened” by the governor’s decision, but thanked the parole board for its “careful consideration” of Coddington’s case. Its clemency recommendation “acknowledged James’s sincere remorse and meaningful transformation during his years on death row,” she said.
“James is loved by many people,” Rolls said in a statement to CNN, “and he has touched the hearts of many. He is a good man.”
Coddington, whose execution by lethal injection is scheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m. CT, will be the first of more than two dozen inmates to be put to death in a controversial series of executions Oklahoma officials plan to carry out between now and December 2024 – at a pace of about one man a month. Opponents and experts have been critical of the plan, pointing to outstanding questions of some inmates’ potential innocence or mental fitness, as well as the state’s recent history of botched lethal injections.
But state officials have stood by their docket – akin in recent years to other series of executions by Arkansas and the US government under the Trump administration but largely out of step with the continued decline of the death penalty in America.
“Oklahomans overwhelmingly voted in 2016 to preserve the death penalty as a consequence for the most heinous murders,” Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said in a July 1 statement as the execution dates were set. “I’m certain that justice and safety for all of us drove that vote.”
In the weeks since the parole board met, calls for clemency for Coddington had grown, as he counted among his backers a former speaker of the state House of Representatives, the former director of the state Department of Corrections and even a woman he once robbed.
“James has lived his transformation on death row,” his clemency petition submitted to the parole board says. “His sobriety, service, and compliance with rules of the society in which he lives are documented. The man the jury convicted and sentenced to death no longer exists.”
But Hale’s family did not support clemency – though his son said at Coddington’s clemency hearing he had forgiven the man who murdered his father.
“I am here to say that I forgive James Coddington,” Mitch Hale said during Coddington’s clemency hearing, according to CNN affiliate KOCO. “But my forgiveness does not release him from the consequence of his actions.”
O’Connor was “disappointed” by the board’s ruling, he said in a statement at the time.
“The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board hearing is not designed to be a substitute for a trial before a jury. The juries heard evidence about Coddington’s childhood environment and brain development during the sentencing phase of the trials,” O’Connor said. “The jury also concluded that Coddington was a continuing threat to society – both inside and outside of prison walls.”
“My office will continue to stand on the irrefutable facts of this case and with the family of Albert Hale and with all Oklahomans,” he added, “by opposing Coddington’s request for relief from the Governor.”
A murder for drug money
Coddington was “in the throes of a crack cocaine binge” when he murdered Hale, whom he met while working at a salvage yard, per the clemency petition, which calls the victim “one of the few people in (Coddington’s) tortured life who helped and supported him.”
Coddington long had struggled with drug addiction but “spiraled into a crack cocaine binge” in early March 1997 and, looking for money, robbed a 7-Eleven, his petition states, but it wasn’t enough. That’s when he went to Hale’s home to borrow more money.
When Coddington asked, Hale refused. He asked Coddington to leave, encouraging him to get help, the petition says. Coddington grabbed a hammer in Hale’s kitchen, hit the man in the head three or four times, stole $520 from Hale’s pocket and left.
Hale was discovered by his son, alive but soaked in blood, according to court records. He died at a hospital about a day later.
Coddington was arrested outside his apartment two days later – after he’d robbed five more convenience stores, his clemency petition says. But Coddington quickly accepted full responsibility for Hale’s killing, per his petition and attorneys, “tearfully” confessing to striking the man with the hammer and leading police to the weapon.
He would have pleaded guilty, his petition states, but was persuaded otherwise by his trial attorney because the district attorney at the time would not offer a plea agreement. Coddington did plead guilty to the robbery charges, the attorney wrote in a letter attached to the petition ((exhibit 42)), so Hale’s family would never have to worry he would walk free if he was ever granted parole.
Coddington was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, though the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals later remanded the case for resentencing. He was again sentenced to death, and his conviction and sentence have been upheld on appeal.
A troubled early life
In asking for mercy, Coddington’s attorneys pointed in part to his childhood, arguing his troubled upbringing, filled with neglect and abuse, started him on a difficult path that culminated with Hale’s murder.
Coddington’s mother and father – who together had nine children – were “not equipped to be parents,” his petition states. Both had long criminal records, and Coddington’s mother spent nearly the entirety of his first eight years of life – save for an 18-month break – in prison.
Coddington’s childhood was spent going between his father and grandmother, both of whom lived in homes described in the petition as “almost uninhabitable”: His grandmother’s home lacked proper plumbing and people used the bathtub as a toilet, while his father’s home was reported to the Department of Human Services multiple times. The home was “not a fit environment for children due to filth,” one DHS notice said.
Coddington was also subjected to abuse, his petition claims. His father and brothers put alcohol in his baby bottles, and his father beat him, leaving welts on his body and sometimes drawing blood, the petition states. The father received welfare assistance, but he bought alcohol instead of food, it adds, leaving the children to eat from fast food restaurants’ dumpsters.
Coddington’s father abandoned him and his younger brother when he was 7, and DHS took custody of the boys, the petition says. Coddington got mental health treatment at a children’s hospital and responded well, the petition indicates, but he was later returned to his mother, whose lifestyle “erased” any progress Coddington had made. She continued to be in and out of prison, and Coddington and his brother were “constantly exposed to her methamphetamine abuse and dealing,” the petition says.
Eventually, Coddington became “immersed” in drugs himself and started getting in trouble with the law. But he tried to get help for his drug addiction, the petition says, voluntarily entering treatment programs and successfully completing them. But his progress would evaporate when he left.
“Again, without a robust support system in place, his sobriety was short-lived,” the petition says.
Coddington could serve others in prison, advocates say
In the years since, however, Coddington has worked hard to rehabilitate himself, his attorneys say, and has “attained and maintained sobriety, breaking the cycle of addiction that plagued his life since early childhood.”
While on Oklahoma’s death row, Coddington has demonstrated exemplary behavior, maintained good relationships with his family and even became a unit orderly, a “coveted position,” his petition says, that includes helping with facility operations and helping inmates and staff. The job requires Coddington to keep up his good behavior.
Even the former director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Justin Jones, called Coddington’s conduct “commendable” in the inmate’s clemency petition. Coddington could be a good influence on other prisoners, if his life is spared, adding the inmate has a “commitment to be productive no matter what situation is before him,” Jones told Public Radio Tulsa this month.
“It takes inmates like him to really balance out and be mentors to younger inmates who probably will get out at some point,” Jones said.
“I don’t think it would serve the best interest of the state of Oklahoma to execute Mr. Coddington,” he said.
Coddington’s transformation was also apparent to Trisha Allen, whom he robbed in 1997 while she was working as a convenience store clerk. Allen would not have testified in support of a death sentence if she’d known of Coddington’s childhood, she wrote in an affidavit to the governor shared by Coddington’s attorneys.
Over the years, she’s kept up with his case, she wrote, and has tried on several occasions to meet Coddington “and see if he’s a different man.”
With the approaching execution date, they finally spoke on the phone, and Coddington apologized. Allen forgave him, she wrote, adding the conversation gave her a “sense of peace” and she believes “God is calling me to help Mr. Coddington receive clemency.”
“I believe in the power of redemption,” she said. “If given the opportunity, Mr. Coddington can help others in prison and live a life of service to others.”