OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Lawmakers on Tuesday sent Gov. Mary Fallin proposed changes to how Oklahoma courts apply the death penalty in first-degree murder cases, a measure sponsored by a freshman representative and former county prosecutor.
Under the proposal from Republican Rep. Scott Biggs of Chickasha, a former Grady County prosecutor, the death penalty would only be an option in first-degree murder cases if it is sought by the state, potentially limiting the number of executions. Current law tells judges to consider the penalty without specifying whether the state must ask for it as a possible punishment.
Biggs' measure also directs judges to hold post-conviction sentencing hearings in all first-degree murder cases if the prosecutor wants to show the suspect has a history of felonies. Such hearings only happen in death penalty cases under current law.
The House voted 82-10 in favor of the measure, which already has passed the Senate and now waits only for Fallin's signature to become law.
But in an exchange mirroring a courtroom showdown, Democratic Rep. Richard Morrissette of Oklahoma City, a defense lawyer, took issue with the measure's second provision, which allows the state to demonstrate the convicted person's history of felonies.
A first-degree murder conviction in non-death penalty cases doesn't currently allow courts to look at a defendant's felony history because the charge isn't considered "enhanceable," meaning a person's criminal history won't push the penalty beyond life in prison.
Biggs' measure directing courts to share the information with juries therefore wouldn't change the punishment, but it would further publicize the suspect's criminal history, a disclosure Morrissette said was needless and unfair.
"The ultimate question here is why, why are we doing this?" he told his colleagues, his voice rising. "I can tell you from experience, the idea of a fair and impartial trial begins to close up."
Biggs said first-degree murder is the only felony where Oklahoma prosecutors are not allowed to present evidence of prior felonies for sentencing.
"In cases of first-degree murder, (this bill) allows the state to put forward all the information they have in the second stage of the trial," he said.