Oklahoma governor denies clemency for death row inmate ahead of Thursday execution

James Coddington, seen in this February 2021 photo from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, is due to be executed Thursday.

(CNN)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."
          The entrance to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

          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.