Oklahoma sues federal prisons for inmate it wants to execute

Oct 27, 2022, 1:48 PM | Updated: 4:12 pm
FILE - A sign for the Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons is displayed at the Metropoli...

FILE - A sign for the Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons is displayed at the Metropolitan Detention Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York, July 6, 2020. Oklahoma is suing the Federal Bureau of Prisons for custody of a state death row inmate who the bureau is refusing to transfer, with the state saying the man's scheduled execution cannot be carried out in December if he is not returned soon. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma is suing the Federal Bureau of Prisons for custody of a state death row inmate whom the bureau is refusing to hand over, with the state saying the man’s scheduled execution cannot be carried out in December if he’s not returned soon.

A federal lawsuit was filed Tuesday by state Attorney General John O’Connor urging that the bureau be ordered to transfer John Hanson back to Oklahoma by Nov. 9 from a federal prison in Pollock, Louisiana. That lawsuit, which also names three federal prison officials, has the support of Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler.

Hanson, 58, has a clemency hearing set for Nov. 9. Unless clemency is recommended and granted by Gov. Kevin Stitt, the inmate is scheduled to receive a lethal injection on Dec. 15 for his conviction in the 1999 killing of an elderly woman.

Mary Agnes Bowles, 77, was killed in a carjacking and kidnapping outside a Tulsa mall in 1999.

The U.S. Justice Department under Democratic President Joe Biden — who has vowed to work to end the death penalty — announced last year that it was halting federal executions. That step came after a historic use of capital punishment under Donald Trump’s presidency, with 13 executions carried out in six months. The Bureau of Prisons’ refusal to turn over Hanson raises questions about whether the agency is using its power to deliver on the president’s political pledge.

Hanson is serving a life sentence for numerous federal convictions, including being a career criminal, that predate his state death sentence.

Attorneys listed as representing Hanson did not return phone calls for comment Thursday.

Kunzweiler said he asked O’Connor’s support for the return of the inmate. The district attorney said he sought the attorney general’s help after his August letter requesting Hanson’s transfer was denied by the warden of the Louisiana facility as being “not in the public’s best interest.”

The decision was “infuriating,” Kunzweiler said.

“I’ve never in my 33 years as a prosecutor encountered this level of refusal to transfer an inmate from one jurisdiction to another,” Kunzweiler said.

After being contacted by Kunzweiler, O’Connor sent a request for Hanson’s transfer to Bureau of Prisons Regional Director Heriberto Tellez in Grand Prairie, Texas, which also was denied.

“As inmate Hanson is presently subject to a life term imposed in federal court, his transfer to state authorities for a state execution is not in the public interest,” according to the Oct. 17 letter from Tellez.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the national Death Penalty Information Center, said he is unaware of the bureau previously declining to transfer an inmate to a state for execution. But he noted that such a transfer is not required.

“The question here is, is this an abuse of discretion (by the bureau),” Dunham said. “It’s hard to make a determination about that because the letter doesn’t explain.”

Dunham said it was not clear whether the refusal to transfer Hanson is related to the federal government’s halting of executions under the Biden administration.

“Given Oklahoma’s history of botched executions, that’s an appropriate question,” Dunham said.

The prisons bureau declined comment, citing the official’s previous responses.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which represents the BOP, also declined to comment and said a response will be filed by the expedited Oct. 30 deadline set by the court.

The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of Texas because that is where Tellez is based, contends Oklahoma faces “imminent harm” if Hanson is not returned.

“Oklahoma’s execution policy begins thirty-five days prior to the execution date” of Dec. 15, according to the filing. “The Oklahoma Department of Corrections must be able to initiate the process on Nov. 10, 2022, with Hanson in custody before that date.”

The filing also argues that the federal government’s refusal to surrender Hanson usurps the state’s authority.

“Defendants have also, in essence, lawlessly threatened to commute Hanson’s sentence to life imprisonment,” from the death penalty he received.

Oklahoma has put to death six inmates since resuming executions in October 2021. The state had one of the nation’s busiest death chambers until problems in 2014 and 2015 led to a de facto moratorium. That included prison officials realizing they received the wrong lethal drug just hours away from executing Richard Glossip in September 2015. It was later learned the same wrong drug had been used to execute an inmate in January 2015.

The drug mix-ups followed a botched execution in April 2014 in which inmate Clayton Lockett struggled on a gurney before dying 43 minutes into his lethal injection — and after the state’s prisons chief ordered executioners to stop.

The state’s next scheduled execution, that of Richard Stephen Fairchild for the beating death of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son in 1993, is set for Nov. 17.

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Oklahoma sues federal prisons for inmate it wants to execute