Oklahoma execution: Benjamin Cole gets lethal injection for 2002 murder of baby daughter

McALESTER — Oklahoma on Thursday carried out the execution of convicted baby killer Benjamin Cole, even though he had brain damage and had been diagnosed since trial as having paranoid schizophrenia.

Cole was declared dead at 10:22 a.m. He was 57.

The frail inmate with a graying long beard and long hair used his last words to pray to Jesus to "receive my spirit."

"Choose Jesus while you still can," he said in a sometimes inaudible and rambling two-minute statement. "Keep your eyes peeled. ... Be ready at all times."

He did not directly express remorse, although he did reference "everyone that I have done wrong." He said he prayed that Jesus would touch the hearts of those in agony over what he had done.

It was the sixth lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary since executions resumed a year ago. Another 23 are scheduled through the end of 2024.

Cole's attorneys claimed he had become mentally incompetent on death row and could not be executed under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 1986. Warden Jim Farris rejected that claim in August and five courts refused after that to intervene.

The last refusal, by the U.S. Supreme Court, came shortly before the execution was set to begin.

"Over his years on death row, Ben slipped into a world of delusion and darkness," his attorney, Tom Hird, said in a statement after the execution. "He was often unable to interact with my colleagues and me in any meaningful way."

The attorney called it unconscionable that Cole was denied a competency trial.

"As Oklahoma proceeds with its relentless march to execute one mentally ill, traumatized man after another, we should pause to ask whether this is really who we are, and who we want to be.”

Death row inmate Benjamin Cole is returned to a hearing Sept. 30 in Pittsburg County District Court after a lunch break.
Death row inmate Benjamin Cole is returned to a hearing Sept. 30 in Pittsburg County District Court after a lunch break.

Cole was scheduled for execution after a federal judge in June rejected death row inmates' complaints about the sedative used in the lethal injection process. The inmates did not pursue those complaints about the sedative on appeal.

Cole was sentenced to die for killing his baby daughter on Dec. 20, 2002, at their home in Claremore. The victim, Brianna Cole, was almost 9 months old.

"Few murders are as shocking as this one," Attorney General John O'Connor's assistants told the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

What did Oklahoma death row inmate Benjamin Cole do?

Cole bent his daughter backward in her crib when she started crying and fussing, according to testimony at his trial. Her mother had put her down for a nap and went outside to hang laundry. Cole was playing a Nintendo video game, "007."

His action snapped the baby's spine in half and tore her aorta, causing massive internal bleeding. Afterward, he went back to playing the video game.

Brianna Cole
Brianna Cole

The girl was eventually taken to a hospital but could not be revived. Police said Cole took his wife home afterward and told her he wanted to try to have another baby.

He confessed the next day after being told a pathologist had deemed the death a homicide. "How many years am I looking at?" he said.

Was Benjamin Cole mentally ill?

Cole had a growing brain lesion and his attorneys repeatedly described him as largely catatonic. At a court hearing Sept. 30, he sat slumped forward in a wheelchair for almost four hours. He kept his eyes closed and never spoke.

However, he spoke at length to a state psychologist who examined him in July at the Oklahoma Forensic Center in Vinita.

Psychologist Scott Orth wrote in a report after the evaluation that he did not witness any substantial overt signs of mental illness.

Cole told the psychologist, according to the report, that "they want to make sure I'm competent, and that I realize first that I killed my daughter, and I went through a trial for taking my daughter's life and a jury found me guilty, they found me guilty of murder, and I was given the death penalty for that, and I accept responsibility for that."

Cole referred to himself as "just a super-duper hyperbolic Jesus freak" and said he hoped his spirit after his execution would return "to my Father in Heaven," according to the report.

He also expressed hope that Gov. Kevin Stitt after his execution "might have a change of heart about seeking capital punishment and focusing on death for inmates, and instead focus more on life and rehabilitation," according to the report.

The Oklahoma State Penitentiary is pictured in 2021.
The Oklahoma State Penitentiary is pictured in 2021.

"It's just something I hope he considers and takes to heart. I'll pray for him and the people of Oklahoma that it happens."

The warden testified at the hearing Sept. 30 that he relied heavily on the psychologist's report when he decided that Cole was competent.

"I'll do the right thing no matter what," the warden testified. "And if I felt he was incompetent, I have no problem with moving that forward. Not a problem at all. But in this case here, I did not see that."

Cole's attorneys had wanted the warden to initiate a process that would have resulted in a jury trial over his mental state. They then asked a Pittsburg County judge, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court, a Tulsa federal judge and a federal appeals court to intervene. All refused.

The decision by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver not to get involved came early Thursday morning. The U.S. Supreme Court refused Wednesday and again Thursday to stay the execution.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 4-1 in September to deny clemency to Cole despite his attorneys' pleas for mercy because of his mental issues.

What was Benjamin Cole's last meal?

Cole did not request a traditional last meal. Correction officials said he was served a facility "religious meal" — vegetarian lasagna, salad, a tortilla and a fruit drink packet — at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

He also declined to have a spiritual adviser in the execution chamber and did not want any of his attorneys in the witness room.

The curtain went up in the execution chamber at 10:04 a.m., past the scheduled start time. Justin Farris, the chief of operations at the Department of Corrections, said Cole chose to be wheeled in to the chamber in a wheelchair rather than walk in himself.

"It took just a few minutes longer," he said.

The lethal injection itself took 16 minutes to complete. Cole opened his eyes, trembled slightly once and yawned as the first drug, the sedative midazolam, flowed into his veins.

Afterward, the aunt and uncle of the victim said she finally got justice and that it should not have taken so long. They also called on the media to advocate for victims and their rights instead of making it all about the perpetrator.

"I'm going to talk to my legislators," the uncle, Dr. Bryan Young, said. "I want to see if there is something that we can do to make this be a faster process. 'Cause 20 years? Give me a break. He admitted to it. And there was no question about this."

The aunt, Donna Daniel of Broken Arrow, said she saw Brianna for the first time in a casket.

Both the aunt and uncle witnessed the execution. The victim's mother did not.

About Cole's last statement, Daniel said, "It just proved that he’s been faking this all along."

Young added, "He knew exactly what he's doing the whole time. He tries to manipulate. He had everybody fooled, or thought he had everybody fooled."

Witnessing the execution for the media were reporters from The Associated Press, The Oklahoman, two Oklahoma City television stations and the McAlester newspaper.

"Having witnessed several midazolam executions, this seemed to be very similar, with ... the hitched breathing and the fluttering of the mouth and in terms of the length of time that it took," the AP reporter, Sean Murphy, said.

Other witnesses included Matt Ballard, the district attorney of Rogers County, and Ervin Yen, an anesthesiologist who served as a state expert in the federal case over the lethal injection protocol.

The U.S Supreme Court's 1986 landmark ruling on the mental state of death row inmates came in an appeal out of Florida. The majority held that the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment prohibits states from inflicting the death penalty upon a prisoner who is insane.

The term has come to be considered derogatory in society but is still used in legal circles and in Oklahoma law. In capital punishment litigation, it means an inmate no longer has a rational understanding of why he is being executed.

A 2013 study found that 20 death row inmates in the United States had been found to be insane since the 1986 decision.

Cole had been days away from being put to death in 2015 when the state halted lethal injections to investigate a drug mix-up.

Death penalty opponents on Thursday called again for the state to stop executions. Some protested outside the Governor's Mansion.

The archbishop of Oklahoma City called the death penalty an outdated method of punishment plagued with errors and controversy.

“The death penalty does little to heal the wounds of grief and loss, and as a state that supports the sanctity of human life for the unborn, we need to continue to build a society that chooses life in all situations," Archbishop Paul S. Coakley said.

The Rev. Don Heath, chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Cole is the third person with mental disabilities to be executed in the past year.

"We mourn the loss of Ben Cole’s life and hope that his troubled soul is at peace," Heath said.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma execution: Benjamin Cole executed for 2002 murder of daughter