Death row minister sues Oklahoma Corrections agency for $10M

A spiritual adviser to several Oklahoma death row inmates is suing the state's Department of Corrections for defamation

BySEAN MURPHY Associated Press Writer
March 24, 2023, 6:21 PM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A death row minister who was inside the execution chamber during Oklahoma's last lethal injection sued the Department of Corrections for $10 million on Friday, alleging the agency and its spokesman defamed him in a statement to the media.

The Rev. Jeff Hood of Arkansas alleges in the federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City that the Jan. 9 statement attributed to Department of Corrections spokesman Josh Ward was false and defamatory.

“The words that Defendant Ward of the ODOC released worldwide have injured Plaintiff Hood's reputation and caused obvious emotional distress," the lawsuit states.

The DOC's statement was released after the agency decided to prohibit Hood from being inside the execution chamber during the Jan. 12 lethal injection of Scott Eizember, for whom Hood had been a spiritual adviser. In the statement, Ward cited Hood's anti-death penalty activism and said Hood had “been arrested multiple times for such outbursts in other states, demonstrating a blatant disregard for the experiences of victims' families and the solemnity of the process."

The agency later reversed course and allowed Hood inside the chamber during Eizember's execution.

“Immediately when I saw that statement, my heart dropped because I work very hard to try to be consistently loving and kind as much as I possibly can to all sides during these executions,” Hood told The Associated Press on Friday. “They thought they could defame and demean me and that there would be no consequences.”

Although Hood has been arrested three times during protests, he claims only one arrest in Texas was related to the death penalty and that it did not disrupt the execution or show any disregard for the experiences of victims' families.

“The ODOC ran multiple background checks on plaintiff Hood before the statement of Defendant Ward was released,” the lawsuit states. “Therefore, Defendant Ward and the ODOC knew or should have known that their statements were false.”

Richard Dieter, the director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said he is unaware of any cases similar to Hood's, but he noted the legal fight over spiritual advisers being inside the death chamber during executions is one that was only recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled in March 2022 that states must accommodate the wishes of death row inmates who want to have their pastors pray aloud and even touch them during their executions.

Hood also alleges the statement violated his due process and his right to practice religious ministry, both in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Ward said Friday he had not seen the lawsuit and that the agency has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.