Oklahoma wants the feds to transfer a man in federal prison to their custody so they can kill him
Federal officials decided transferring John Hanson to Oklahoma for execution is "not in the public's best interest." Oklahoma's AG wants the feds to reverse course — but hasn't said they're wrong.
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor wants federal authorities to transfer custody of John Fitzgerald Hanson (also known as George John Hanson) from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where he is serving a life sentence, to Oklahoma’s prisons so that they can carry out a state death sentence and kill him in December.
The federal government has already said no once, but O’Connor, a Republican, is still fighting — although he has not given any legal reasons why the feds’ decision is wrong.
Hanson is one of 25 people sentenced to death in Oklahoma who the state in July assigned execution dates. Two of the 25 have already been executed, including Benjamin Cole this past week. Despite the Dec. 15 execution date that Oklahoma assigned to Hanson for his conviction in a 1999 murder, however, he is not even in Oklahoma. He is, instead, serving a federal life sentence for other convictions in a federal prison in Louisiana.
In August, the Tulsa County, Oklahoma, district attorney asked the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to transfer Hanson to Oklahoma prisons so that his death sentence could be carried out. In late September, a warden wrote back to tell the DA that his request had been denied.
The transfer, the warden wrote, is not “in the public’s best interest.”
Since then, the DA went to O’Connor and O’Connor went over the warden’s head, requesting a review of the September denial — with the threat of further action if BOP does not agree to transfer Hanson.
In his Oct. 14 letter, O’Connor set a deadline of this Monday, Oct. 24, for a response — adding that he “will proceed accordingly” if he does not get a response by that time. In the letter, he does not provide any argument as to why the September BOP decision about “the public’s best interest” was wrong. He also does not specify what his next steps would be, though litigation would seem likely.
In short, O’Connor wants the feds to reverse course — but he hasn’t said they’re wrong.
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FEDERAL RULES: Asked about the September denial of the transfer request, a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson told Law Dork, “Based on privacy, safety, and security reasons, we do not comment on inmate's conditions of confinement, to include transfers or reasons for transfers. Therefore, we have no information to provide.”
The spokesperson later pointed to “general information on how the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) ordinarily manages these cases,” a Program Statement on “Transfer of a Prisoner to State Custody Prior to Release from the Federal Sentence.”
Under the applicable law, which is 18 USC 3623 here, such a transfer only occurs when three conditions are met. The first two are straightforward: There has to be a request, and the requestor has to provide a copy of the conviction judgment. The third condition is discretionary, requiring that “the Director finds that the transfer would be in the public interest.”
THE BOP LETTER: In the Sept. 28 BOP denial letter to the Tulsa district attorney, Stephen Kunzweiler, the warden cited the law and program statement and wrote that the transfer request was denied “as it is not in the public’s best interest.”
The decision, the letter states, was made by the Designation and Sentence Computation Center. The BOP spokesperson told Law Dork that the center’s chief “assumed all designation and redesignation authorities, to include state placements, in 2006.”
While the denial letter notes that policy requires BOP to give “the reason” for the denial, it appears that BOP believes that simply stating that “it is not in the public’s best interest” is sufficient.
WHY THE DENIAL: Neither BOP nor Justice Department spokespeople provided any further information on the BOP denial or underlying reasoning of the decision that transfer “is not in the public’s best interest.”
In addition to any federal interest in having a person serve out their federal sentence, one factor at issue in the transfer request could be the moratorium on federal executions that Attorney General Merrick Garland announced in July 2021.
Notably, in announcing the moratorium, Garland said something that could be relevant regarding Hanson.
“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely. That obligation has special force in capital cases.”
Oklahoma has had significant problems with its execution process, having had its own moratorium for several years following a pair of botched executions in 2014 and 2015. During that moratorium, a bipartisan commission recommended dozens of reforms to the state’s system — “virtually none of” which had been adopted by time the state decided to set the 25 execution dates.
Outside of moratorium-related questions, however, the BOP denial also comes as Garland has authorized Justice Department lawyers to proceed with seeking at least one new death sentence in an ongoing federal case.
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THE OKLAHOMA AG’S LETTER: Although the BOP warden “trust[ed]” that his response would “address[ Kunzweiler’s] concerns,” it apparently did not — and Kunzweiler sought assistance from O’Connor.
In O’Connor’s Oct. 14 letter, he went to the warden’s boss, the BOP regional director, asking, in effect, “Did you mean to do this?”
Although the letter referenced 18 USC 3623 and made clear that his request meets the first two requirements for transfer, the letter did not mention or dispute, let alone provide contradictory evidence regarding, BOP’s decision that transfer “is not in the public’s best interest.”
It’s also notable that, while completely ignoring one of the statutory requirements, O’Connor’s letter claims the law “creates certain obligations.” Sure, but only if all three requirements under the law are met.
Given O’Connor’s failure to address the key aspect of the Sept. 28 denial, it’s not clear the BOP has even been given any reason to change its conclusion.
Despite that, O’Connor gave BOP a deadline for action — this Monday.
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