The Case of a Death Row Inmate Scheduled to Die This Week Sheds 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 scheduled to take place in Oklahoma.
  • Coddington’s case highlights the connection between addiction and the criminal justice system.

“If this ends today with my death sentence, okay,” a condemned inmate told Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board 25 years after a dayslong cocaine bender sent him to death row.

James Coddington is scheduled on Thursday to be the first of two dozen men slated for execution in Oklahomaa state with a history of botched judicial killings that continues to defy the trend of curtailing execution rates across the country.

In 1997, Coddington had gone to the home of 73-year-old Albert Hale, his coworker at a Honda shop, to borrow $50 for cocaine. Hale, who refused to give him the money, tried escorting him out of his home before Coddington picked up a nearby hammer and struck him with it repeatedly, according to court filings.

Hours later, Hale was initially found alive by his son but later died, after succumbing to the damage inflicted on his brain and skull, court documents suggest. Coddington was sentenced to die 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 combined nine children and had been subject to a turbulent upbringing, according to court records.

Both of Coddington’s parents experienced addiction, which he would also endure. Starting from the time he was an infant, Coddington’s father and older brothers regularly spiked his baby bottles with alcohol, his siblings confirmed to the court.

Similarly, many of Coddington’s siblings also struggled with drug abuse and several had been in and out of jail for drug-related crimes. 

His mother had been in and out of jail while he was young, leaving his father to run the household. Legal filings suggest the Oklahoma City house — where the tub was used as a toilet as pests and roaches ran rampant — was “not even fit for a rat.”

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

His mother recalled Bill Coddington “whipping [James] hard or slapping him or hitting him or if he got too rowdy, [Bill Coddington would] throw a bottle full of whiskey or beer and just knock him out,” per court documents.

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 track of the fact that his life, from a very early age, was affected by the criminal legal system, and then also by people with substance use disorders really shaping the childhood that he had and making it much more likely that he would end up in that cycle of drug use,” Ndulue said.

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

During the trial, the judge barred a psychiatrist from testifying about Coddington’s inability to form “the required intent for first-degree murder due to his intoxication,” prompting a retrial in 2008. But he was once again sentenced to die, according to court filings.

“I think thinking about this one moment where he commits this crime that he was deeply remorseful for, without taking it into the broader context of how the system actually shaped him and affected where he ended up at that time, I think is shortsighted,” Ndulue added.

Seeking redemption


Prior to Hale’s death, Coddington’s life was marred by poverty, addiction, and abuse, but the 50-year-old inmate has since turned his life around as best as possible behind bars, Emma Rolls, Coddington’s attorney, told Insider.

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

Rolls said killing Hale marked a turning point for Coddington as demonstrated by his “exemplary behavioral record” and involvement in the prison: “It made him not want to live out any more moments in vain.” 

During his time in the Oklahoma prison, Coddington received his GED and became a man of faith, legal filings said.

At the prison, he’d also taken on the role of unit orderly — helping with staff needs throughout the prison — and the role of run man — in which he gave other inmates their meal trays.

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

In court documents, Rolls wrote: “James has lived his transformation on death row. His sobriety, service, and compliance with rules of the society in which he lives are documented. The man the jury convicted and sentenced to death no longer exists.”

Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board recommended that Coddington’s death sentence be commuted to life without the possibility of parole on August 3, but it’s up to the governor to actually reduce his sentence.

“I took a life. It changed me. It changed me in a way that I can’t explain, but it changed me. It took a fire out of my stomach that I had my entire life and it made me calm. I don’t know why he had to die to do that, but it did. It calmed me. 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 August 25 unless Gov. Kevin Stitt, a pro-death penalty conservative, commutes his sentence.

“He lives the life of compassion, of peace, of service and atonement. And I think that’s the real testament of his belief. He is not a person who’s going to without humility, discuss his beliefs. But every day he lives out the principles of redemption,” Rolls told Insider.

“This is the purest case that the governor will likely see that involves these concepts,” Rolls added.


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