The case of a death row inmate set to die this week shines a light on the connections between addiction, abuse and the criminal justice system.

  • James Coddington is scheduled to be executed on August 25.
  • His killing would be the first of two dozen planned to be carried out in Oklahoma.
  • Coddington’s case highlights the connection between addiction and the criminal justice system.

“If it ends today with my death sentence, fine,” a convicted inmate told the Oklahoma Board of Pardons and Paroles 25 years after a cocaine-fuelled drug addict sent him to death row all day.

James Coddington is scheduled Thursday to be the first of two dozen men scheduled for execution in Oklahoma, a state with a history of botched executions that continues to defy the trend to limit the number of executions nationwide.

In 1997, Coddington went to the home of 73-year-old Albert Hale, a colleague at a Honda dealership, to borrow $50 for cocaine. Hale, who refused to give him the money, tried to escort him from his home before Coddington picked up a nearby hammer and hit him repeatedly with it, according to court documents.

Hours later, Hale was initially found alive by his son, but later died after succumbing to the damage to his brain and skull, court documents show. Coddington was sentenced to death in 2003.

Addiction and abuse as catalysts for his death sentence

This Feb. 5, 2021 photo provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections shows James Coddington.

This Feb. 5, 2021 photo provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections shows James Coddington.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP, file

James Coddington was born to Bill Coddington and Gala Hood on March 22, 1972. He was the second youngest of their nine children and had a turbulent upbringing, according to court records.

Both of Coddington’s parents had addictions that he would also endure. Starting when he was a baby, Coddington’s father and older brothers regularly filled his baby bottles with alcohol, his siblings confirmed in court.

Likewise, many of Coddington’s siblings have also struggled with drug abuse, and several have been in and out of prison for drug-related crimes.

His mother was in and out of prison while he was young, leaving his father to run the household. Court filings suggest the Oklahoma City home — where the bathtub was used as a toilet because pests and cockroaches ran rampant — “wasn’t fit even for a rat.”

Court documents say Bill Coddington, who had his own run-ins with the law, physically abused James throughout his childhood.

His mother recalled that Bill Coddington was “whipped”. [James] loud or slaps or punches, or if he has become too violent, [Bill Coddington would] throw a bottle full of whiskey or beer and just knock him out,” court documents state.

Ngozi Ndulue, deputy director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Insider that acknowledging James Coddington’s relationship with addiction and the criminal justice system during his upbringing is necessary to understand his journey to death row.

“I just don’t want to lose sight of the fact that his life, from a very early age, was affected by the criminal justice system and then also by people with substance use disorders that really shaped the childhood that he had, and made him much more likely to fall into that cycle of drug use,” Ndulue said.

A medical examination completed by an Oklahoma psychiatrist that year found that Coddington’s “drug-induced psychosis” led to his “impulsive” killing of Hale. Additionally, a psychiatric evaluation of Coddington conducted in 1998 indicated that he suffered from “mild neuropsychological impairment.”

During the trial, the judge barred a psychiatrist from testifying about Coddington’s inability to form “the requisite intent to commit first-degree murder due to his intoxication,” leading to a retrial in 2008. But he was again sentenced to death, according to court documents.

“I think thinking about that one moment where he commits this crime that he has deep remorse for, without taking it into the larger context of how the system actually shaped him and affected where he ended up at that time , I think it is short-sighted,” added Ndulue.

Searching for redemption

Before Hale’s death, Coddington’s life was marred by poverty, addiction and abuse, but since then the 50-year-old inmate has turned his life around as best he can behind bars, Emma Rawls, Coddington’s attorney, told Insider.

“I’m clean, I know God, I’m not … I’m not a violent murderer,” Coddington said at a parole hearing seeking clemency.

Rawls said Hale’s killing marked a turning point for Coddington, as evidenced by his “exemplary behavior” and involvement in prison: “It made him not want to live any more moments in vain.”

During his time in an Oklahoma prison, Coddington earned his GED and became a man of faith, court documents said.

At the prison, he had also taken on the role of ward orderly — assisting with staff needs throughout the prison — and the role of run man — in which he gave other inmates their food trays.

Coddington was even selected as one of four death row inmates to participate in a pilot shared yard time project where inmates were housed in separate outdoor yards.

In court documents, Rawls wrote: “James has lived through his transformation into a death row inmate. His sobriety, service, and adherence to the rules of the society in which he lives are documented. The man whom the jury convicted and sentenced to death no longer exists.”

The Oklahoma Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended Coddington’s death sentence be commuted to life without parole on Aug. 3, but it’s up to the governor to actually commute his sentence.

“I took a life. It changed me. It changed me in a way I can’t explain, but it changed me. It took the fire out of my stomach that I had all my life and made me calm. “I don’t know why he had to die to do that, but it happened. That calmed me down. And I can’t apologize enough for what I did,” Coddington told the board during his clemency hearing.

Coddington’s execution date is set for Aug. 25 unless Gov. Kevin Stitt, a death penalty conservative, commutes his sentence.

“He lived a life of compassion, of peace, of service and redemption. And I think that is the true testimony of his faith. He is not a man who will without humility discuss his beliefs. But every day he lives by the principles of redemption,” Rawls told Insider.

“This is the cleanest case the governor is likely to see that incorporates these concepts,” Rawls added.

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