Bigler Stouffer’s execution was the epitome of cruel

December 19, 2021
Death penalty opponents stand at a vigil for Bigler "Bud" Jobe Stouffer II.
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Whether or not Bigler “Bud” Stouffer was actually a murderer, his execution this month in Oklahoma underscores a central factor making capital punishment both cruel and unusual. 

Stouffer was found guilty 36 years ago of killing a woman in a love triangle. Fifteen years later, the conviction was overturned when his lawyers were deemed to have been inept. He was tried again and in 2003 was convicted, receiving another death sentence. Eighteen years later, an Oklahoma parole board voted to grant him clemency, but Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt refused to accept the recommendation. On Dec. 9, at age 79, Stouffer became the oldest person to be executed in Oklahoma.

The length of time Stouffer languished on death row was not only cruel, it essentially amounted to state-sanctioned torture. 

A Gallup poll released last month shows public support for the death penalty is the lowest it’s been in nearly 50 years. The moral argument against it is more than satisfactory: Killing as punishment is wrong. But there are many other reasons to oppose capital punishment, including wide disparities based upon race, wealth and geography – not to mention the horror of possibly executing innocent people. 

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Not often discussed is the extraordinary – and growing – length of time that people like Stouffer spend on death row. While the number of prisoners under death sentence has gradually declined, time spent on death row has increased, according to federal statistics.

For the 22 people put to death in 2019 (the latest period tabulated) the average length of time between imposition of their sentences and execution was 22 years  – the longest waiting period since executions resumed in this country in the 1970s.  

The nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center examined the data and found that half of the roughly 2,500 people on death row have been imprisoned for two decades or longer. The DPIC calls it a clear violation of human rights

Consider the case of Raymond Riles, who was in his 20s when he shot and killed a man after a vehicle dispute. That was in 1974. After more than 45 years on death row, a Texas court ruled in April that jurors had failed to consider his mental impairment. In June, his sentence was reduced to life.

Much of the waiting time for condemned prisoners relates to the lengthy appeals process. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, more than 50% of exonerations since 2013 have taken at least 25 years

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California voters approved a measure to expedite capital cases by streamlining appeals and limiting them to five years. Part of it was overturned by the state’s Supreme Court, while the remaining portions have not been implemented. Regardless, such politically contrived solutions are ill-advised. 

Numerous other factors contribute to delays, including nonlegal matters such as finding an acceptable drug mixture for lethal injections. Then, there’s politics. California has the nation’s largest death row population, currently 697. But there hasn’t been an execution in California since January 2006, and there won’t be any as long as Democrat Gavin Newsom is governor. He issued a moratorium on executions but has stopped short of commuting any death sentences to life without parole, leaving hundreds of inmates in unconscionable limbo. 

Michael Hill has been on California’s death row for 34 years, following the fatal shooting of two people during a robbery. Hill insists he is innocent, and his case has bounced around the courts. Two months ago, after new evidence emerged, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria said, “Litigating this case is … the equivalent of flushing massive amounts of taxpayer money down the toilet.” Meanwhile, Hill, now 66, remains on death row. 

Those serving capital sentences are often segregated from other prisoners. This alone contributes to severe mental anguish, beyond the obvious stress of not knowing when or whether they will be killed. And the death-row population is aging. Walter Moody was on Alabama’s death row for about 22 years before his execution in 2018 for a bombing that killed a federal judge. At age 83, Moody was the oldest person to be executed in the country in modern times. 

The enormous amount of time necessary to process capital cases and, moreover, to fairly pursue all reasonable appeals, should weigh heavily on the minds of legislators and judges who will determine the future of the death penalty in America. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer has been outspoken on the matter: “Where a delay, measured in decades, reflects the State’s own failure to comply with the Constitution’s demands, the claim that time has rendered the execution inhuman is a particularly strong one.” 

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Delays in capital cases are the unavoidable byproducts of an unjust system. The only way to fix the problem is to eliminate such punishments altogether, which is long overdue. 

After 36 years on and off death row, Stouffer’s final words on Dec. 9 were, “My request is that my Father forgive them. Thank you.”

Peter Funt is host of “Candid Camera” and author of the newly released book “Self-Amused: A Tell-Some Memoir.” 

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