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Archbishop, Catholic Advocates Call on Oklahoma Governor to Commute Death Penalty Sentence

Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City speaks during a Nov. 14, 2023, session of the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (Photo: OSV News/Bob Roller)

WASHINGTON — Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley and leaders of the Catholic Mobilizing Network that advocates against the death penalty have urged Oklahoma’s governor to grant clemency to a man scheduled to die by lethal injection Nov. 30. 

In mid-November, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-2 to recommend clemency for Phillip Hancock, 59, who was convicted of a double murder more than 20 years ago and claimed he killed in self-defense. 

The final decision rests with Gov. Kevin Stitt, who can decide to commute Hancock’s punishment to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Catholic Mobilizing Network posted a letter on its website for people to sign asking the governor to do just that. 

The letter says that signers “do not forget the pain endured by the men Mr. Hancock killed, Robert Jett and James Lynch,” and they also do not “forget the grief and suffering of their family and loved ones. As a Church, we pray for their continued healing.” 

But the letter said signers do not “condone this potential execution as a form of justice.” 

Archbishop Coakley, who has frequently spoken out against the death penalty, similarly called on the governor to recommend clemency for Hancock and thanked the state board for their vote recommending clemency. 

“The Catholic Church recognizes the immeasurable harm done to victims of crime and their families, and the need for justice and healing. However, the death penalty is a cruel and archaic method of addressing serious crimes,” he said. 

The archbishop also noted that executions “perpetuate cycles of violence and provide no opportunity of healing for victims’ families.”

Hancock was convicted of shooting and killing the two men in Oklahoma City in 2001. At his hearing he said he was unarmed and lured into a trap where the two men were trying to kill him. He said he grabbed one of their guns to defend himself. 

Several family members of the victims urged the panel not to recommend clemency.  

Stitt has previously rejected two of the state board’s recommendations but in 2021 he granted the state board’s vote to commute the death sentence of Julius Jones to life in prison, just hours before he was to be executed. 

Hancock is among 36 men and one woman awaiting execution in the state. 

Oklahoma has carried out nine executions since resuming lethal injections in October 2021 following a nearly six-year hiatus from the practice after problems with executions in 2014 and 2015. 

Some Republican lawmakers this fall said they were considering trying to once again impose a moratorium on the death penalty until more safeguards can be put in place.

Republican Rep. Kevin McDugle, who supports the death penalty, said he is increasingly concerned about the possibility of an innocent person being put to death. In October, he requested a study on a possible moratorium before the House Committee on Judiciary-Criminal.

He said there are cases now where people are on death row “who don’t deserve the death penalty.” He added, “The process in Oklahoma is not right. Either we fix it, or we put a moratorium in place until we can fix it.”