50 years after landmark death penalty case, Supreme Court's ruling continues to guide execution debate

The state of Oklahoma put James Coddington to death on Aug. 25, 2022, for the 1997 murder of a 73-year-old friend who refused to give him money to buy drugs.

It marks the beginning of a busy period at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s execution chamber. Last month, the state announced plans to carry out the death sentence of 25 people over the next couple of years.

As a scholar who has long followed the capital punishment debate in the U.S., I know that Oklahoma’s plan runs against the grain of the death penalty’s recent history. Over the past several years both the number of death sentences imposed and executions carried out across the U.S. has declined sharply.

Since 2007 more states have abolished the death penalty than in any comparable 15-year period in American history. And in November 2020 America elected its first president ever to openly oppose capital punishment.

Today, fewer jurisdictions are using the death penalty, but some – like Oklahoma – seem to be doubling down. America’s death penalty is now defined, as the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center noted in a 2021 report, “by two competing forces: the continuing long-term erosion of capital punishment across most of the country, and extreme conduct by a dwindling number of outlier jurisdictions to continue to pursue death sentences and executions.”