Oklahoma

Oklahoma

Two Cases Pit Native American Sovereignty Against U.S. Death Penalty

As federal prosecutors dropped the death penalty against a Navajo man accused of killing a police officer on Navajo land, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a separate case on the status of a treaty establishing the borders of the Creek Nation reservation that could determine whether Oklahoma has jurisdiction to carry out the death penalty against a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe. The two cases highlight issues of Native American tribal sovereignty with potentially profound implications for the administration of capital punishment under state and federal death penalty laws.

On November 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Carpenter v. Murphy, Oklahoma’s appeal of a lower federal court decision that overturned the conviction and death sentence of Patrick Murphy, a citizen of the Creek Nation, for a murder the federal court ruled was committed in Indian Country, on lands within the boundaries of the Creek Nation reservation established by treaty in 1866. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled in August 2017 that because the homicide with which Murphy was charged “was committed in Indian country, the Oklahoma state courts lacked jurisdiction to try him.” Under the federal Major Crimes Act, the court said, Murphy could be prosecuted by federal authorities, but not by the state. Because of tribal opposition to the death penalty, Murphy would not face capital prosecution under the act. Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd hailed the Circuit court’s decision as “affirm[ing] the right of the Nation and all other Indian Nations to make and enforce their own laws within their own boundaries.”

In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only Congress had authority to disestablish or diminish an Indian reservation. Congress has never explicitly disestablished the Creek reservation. However, Oklahoma appealed the court’s ruling, arguing that the admission of Oklahoma into the Union in 1907 superseded the treaty and disestablished the reservation. Arguing for Murphy, Ian Gershengorn told the Court that the tribe has never ceded authority over the lands and “for the last 40 years, … when the Creek Nation adopted a constitution in 1979, they asserted political jurisdiction to the extent of their 1900 boundaries.” The Court’s decision in the case could affect criminal prosecutions in an 11-county region of eastern Oklahoma.

In New Mexico, federal prosecutors on November 19 withdrew their notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Kirby Cleveland in the killing of a tribal police officer. In January 2018, U.S. attorneys announced they would capitally prosecute Cleveland, prompting opposition from the Navajo Nation, which holds the official position that “capital punishment is not an acceptable form of punishment.” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch stated in a letter, “The death penalty is counter to the cultural beliefs and traditions of the Navajo People who value life and place a great emphasis on the restoration of harmony through restoration and individual attention.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office had argued that because the murder involved the death of a police officer, the tribe’s position was not binding on the federal government. The case was further complicated by the fact that the state of New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, so a death-penalty prosecution was counter to the policy of the state in which the crime took place.

“Often Forgotten” in the Wake of Exonerations, Wrongful Convictions Harm Murder Victims’ Families, Too

In a feature article in Politico, Lara Bazelon, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and author of the new book, Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction, describes an exoneration as “an earthquake [that] leaves upheaval and ruin in its wake.” Exonerees, she writes, “suffer horribly—both physically and mentally—in prison” and are revictimized following their release, “leav[ing] prison with no ready access to services or a support system that can help them re-acclimate to society.” But wrongful convictions that lead to exonerations have other, “often forgotten” victims, too: the family members of the crime victim. Victims’ family members, Bazelon writes, are “forced to relive the worst experience of their lives with the knowledge that the actual perpetrator was never caught, or caught far too late, after victimizing more people.”

Bazelon’s article highlights the experience of these family members, telling the story of Christy Sheppard (pictured), whose cousin, Debbie Lee Carter, was murdered in Oklahoma when Christy was eight years old. Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were convicted of the murder; Williamson was sentenced to death and Fritz to life without parole. Eleven years later, when Williamson and Fritz were exonerated, it shook Sheppard and her family. The tremors from that wrongful conviction transformed the family’s perception of the criminal justice system and turned Sheppard into an advocate for criminal justice reform. In 2013, Sheppard participated in a panel discussion at the annual conference of the Innocence Project. There, she appeared with Jennifer Thompson, a rape survivor who had misidentified her rapist, then later co-authored a book with the man who had been wrongfully convicted of her attack. Sheppard said that Thompson voiced the same sense of “re-victimization and not being included” that she and her family had felt. After the conference, Sheppard came to view the experiences of exonerees and crime victims as “completely different but also the same. ...We have all been lied to, mistreated, and not counted.”

Sheppard later wrote an op-ed about the innocence claims of another Oklahoma death-row prisoner, Richard Glossip. “[The victim] and his family deserve justice,” she wrote, “but justice won’t be served if Glossip is put to death and we find out too late that he is innocent of this crime.” She was one of eleven members of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, and the only member who was neither a lawyer nor a politician. As a member of the commission, she sought to challenge the idea that the death penalty was the only way for her family to be given justice. She has since spoken about her experiences on local and national media, testified before the Ohio Senate in support of a bill to ban the execution of people with mental illness, and campaigned for death penalty repeal in Nebraska. “I know these cases are not about the truth,” Sheppard told Bazelon. “It is politics; it is a game where people are moved around and played. It is not fair and it is not balanced.”

Congressional Black Caucus Asks Oklahoma Governor to Review Case of Julius Jones

The Congressional Black Caucus has urged Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to review the case of death-row prisoner Julius Jones (pictured) and to use her authority to correct what it characterized as his "wrongful conviction." In an August 21, 2018 letter to the Governor, the Black Caucus — an organization of African-American members of the U.S. House of Representatives — expressed its "deep concerns" about racial bias in the application of the death penalty in Oklahoma and the risk of executing an innocent person. Jones' case, it said, fell "[a]t the nexus" of those issues. Jones, an African-American honor student who was co-captain of his high school football, basketball, and track teams, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white businessman. His conviction relied heavily on the testimony of his co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, who avoided the death penalty and was given a substantially reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony against Jones. According to the letter, "[t]wo prisoners even heard Mr. Jordan bragging that he set-up Julius, and that he would get out of prison in 15 years in exchange for his testimony." Jones did not fit the description of the murderer given by the victim's sister, but Jordan did. However, Jones' lawyers, the letter emphasized, had no capital trial experience, "failed to show the jury a photograph of Mr. Jones, taken a few days before the shooting ... that [proved] he could not be the person who the victim's sister described," and "did not put on a single witness to testify during the guilt-innocence phase of his trial." The letter said Jones' case also "was plagued by a racially charged investigation and trial," and his sentence was tainted by the "profound inequity in the application of the death penalty based on race." Jones' current attorneys recently uncovered evidence that one of his jurors used a racial slur during the trial. "One juror reported telling the judge about another juror who said the trial was a waste of time and 'they should just take the [n-word] out and shoot him behind the jail,'" the letter states. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to consider this new evidence, and Jones also has a petition pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Relying on a 2017 study on race and death sentencing in the state, that petition argues that Oklahoma's death penalty unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of race. One key finding of that study, the letter said, is that "a black defendant accused of killing a white male victim in Oklahoma is nearly three times more likely to receive a death sentence than if his victim were a non-white male." The congressmembers also urged Gov. Fallin to address a range of systemic reforms suggested by the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, including reforms to eyewitness identification procedures, forensic science reform, regulating the use of informants, and recording custodial interrogations. "Major reform is needed to the criminal justice system to ensure that the fair and impartial process called for by the Death Penalty Study Commission becomes a reality," they write. "Given this backdrop, we strongly urge you to use the power of your office to put these recommended reforms in place."

Fox Commentator: Oklahoma “Frontier Justice” Has Produced “Wretched Record” of Wrongful Capital Convictions

Calling Oklahoma “the notorious home of ‘Hang ’Em High’ executions,” conservative commentator and Fox News contributor Michelle Malkin (pictured) has urged the state to adopt sytemic reforms to address its “wretched record on wrongful convictions.” Malkin says that despite 35 exonerations in the last 25 years—including 7 death-row exonerations—and a “reign of prosecutorial terror and forensic error by the late Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy and rogue Oklahoma City police department crime lab analyst Joyce Gilchrist,” the state has failed to create a forensic science commission to investigates errors and professional misconduct by crime labs and forensic analysts and “not a single Oklahoma district attorney’s office has established an official mechanism to review tainted convictions.” In an August 8, 2018 commentary for the Creators Syndicate, Malkin warns that “‘Frontier justice’ costs too many citizens of all races, creeds, and backgrounds their freedom and their lives.” She says, “In the old days of the Wild West, vigilantes worked outside the judicial system to punish rivals regardless of their guilt or innocence. Today, outlaws operate inside the bureaucracy to secure criminal convictions at all costs.” In her commentary, Malkin highlights the death-penalty exonerations of Curtis McCarty and Robert Lee Miller, Jr., and current appeals attempting to free death-row prisoner Julius Jones. Notorious former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy withheld evidence from McCarty’s attorneys, and crime lab analyst Joyce Gilchrist, implicated in at least 11 wrongful convictions, falsified and destroyed forensic evidence. Gilchrist’s false testimony in the case included claims that hairs found at the crime scene matched McCarty’s and that his blood type matched the semen found on the victim’s body. They didn’t. Miller’s case was also tainted by bad forensics and a coerced false confession. Malkin points to the case of Julius Jones—recently featured in the documentary series The Last Defense—as emblematic of some of the ongoing problems in Oklahoma cases. Jones, who is seeking appellate review of evidence that supports his innocence claims, filed motions for discovery and a request for an evidentiary hearing in December 2017. Under instructions of a court clerk, they placed supporting evidence in a sealed envelope labeled “protected material.” That crucial evidence was not presented to the court and disappeared for six months until Jones’ investigator was able to uncover them herself in the clerk’s office. The court initially rejected Jones’ appeal, but will now reconsider, due to the clerk’s “mismanagement of the exhibits.” Another Oklahoma County death-row prisoner, Richard Glossip, was convicted and sentenced to death based on solely on the testimony of a 19-year-old who confessed to the murder and then implicated Glossip in exchange for a reduced sentence. No physical evidence linked Glossip to the crime, the teen gave investigators multiple contradictory descriptions of the murder before adopting police suggestions that Glossip was involved, and two witnesses who have come forward with evidence of Glossip’s innocence say they have been subjected to retaliation and intimidation by prosecutors. Oklahoma, Malkin says, “stands out for its decades of trampling due process, subverting public disclosure, perpetuating forensic junk science, manufacturing false accusations and enabling official misconduct.” She says that, given the state’s record and its recent “chilling” history of “horrific botched executions,” permitting the state to resume executions poses a “human rights crisis.” Silence in the face of that crisis, she says, “is complicity.”

Television Documentary Chronicles Innocence Claims of Two Death-Row Prisoners

A new documentary airing on ABC tells the stories of Darlie Lynn Routier and Julius Jones, two death-row prisoners who have long argued they were wrongfully convicted. The Last Defense, produced by Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon, focuses its first four episodes on Routier, a Texas woman convicted of killing her young son, then highlights Jones, a Black man who was a 19-year-old college student when he was arrested for the murder of a White businessman. Routier says an intruder broke into her home, killed her 5- and 6-year-old sons, and stabbed her while her husband and youngest son slept upstairs. Police concluded that Routier had staged the break-in and quickly named her as the suspect in her sons' murders. Her trial in the death of the younger child began only seven months after the murders and lasted only two days. Her attorneys say she did not receive adequate representation at trial, and that her trial attorney failed to counter forensic evidence against her because he had a conflict of interest, having previously represented Routier's husband in an unrelated case. Though a court has ordered DNA testing that could verify Routier's burglary story, bureaucratic delays have kept her waiting on death row. A June 19, 2017 status report on the testing said, “In May 2017, counsel in the Dallas County District Attorney (office) learned the materials that were supposed to have been transported to the Department of Public Safety for DNA testing, as the state trial court’s testing order had required, had never been transported to DPS.” Jones, who is on death row in Oklahoma, had been a high school athlete and honor student who did not fit the description of the shooter. Like Routier, he is seeking DNA testing that he believes will prove his innocence. Jones's case raises claims of ineffective counsel, and the series explores the role of race in his trial, as a young Black man accused of killing a White man in a suburban neighborhood. Jones has an appeal pending in the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Court to review the race discrimination in his case. Data from a 2017 study of race and the death penalty shows that, in Oklahoma, defendants convicted of killing White victims are more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing victims of color, and that among these White-victim cases, defendants of color were then nearly twice as likely as White defendants to be sentenced to death. The Last Defense airs Tuesdays on ABC.

Supreme Court to Review Native American's Conviction and Death Sentence for Murder on Indian Lands

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a federal appeals court decision vacating the conviction of Patrick Dwayne Murphy (pictured), a Native-American prisoner sentenced to death in Oklahoma state court for a murder he argues could only be prosecuted by the federal government. On May 21, 2018, the Court granted Oklahoma’s petition to review an August 2017 decision by the U.S Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruling that Murphy—a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation—should not have been tried in state courts because the killing occurred within the borders of the Creek Reservation, which the court found to be “Indian country.” Under the federal Major Crimes Act, certain enumerated crimes, including murder, are subject to exclusive federal jurisdiction if committed in Indian country by or against an Indian. A unanimous three-judge panel of the appeals court sided with Murphy and Native American friend-of-the-court advocates who argued that the boundaries of the Creek Reservation—which spans eleven counties across Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa—were established in an 1866 treaty between the U.S. and the Creek Nation and that Congress has never disestablished them. In their petition to the Court, state prosecutors challenged the circuit court's ruling that found that the 1866 treaty between the U.S. and the Creek Nation remains intact, claiming that the decision “threatens to resurrect Oklahoma’s pre-statehood status.” Murphy’s brief opposing the State’s petition argues that, while the State of Oklahoma has long “asserted absolute criminal and civil jurisdiction” over these lands, it has done so “in defiance of Congress’s statutes, in furtherance of one of this country’s most shameful episodes of plunder and exploitation.” The land in question in the case has long been claimed by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Kevin Dellinger, attorney general for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said that they “welcome the chance for the United States Supreme Court to affirm the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s sovereign territorial boundaries as established in our 1866 treaty with the United States.” The Tenth Circuit “found clear confirmation that Congress deliberately preserved the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation,” he said. “Unable to dispute the clear historical record and the law, the state of Oklahoma has asked the Supreme Court to read into facts that simply do not exist and/or to change the well established applicable law.” The Supreme Court will hear argument in the case in the Fall. Justice Gorsuch, who previously served as a judge on the Tenth Circuit, took no part in the decision to review the case.

Pressed on Execution Practices, Nebraska Obstructs Release of Information

As legislators and the media have pressed Nebraska for information on its secretive execution practices, the executive branch has responded—the state's leading newspapers say—with obfuscation and with a lawsuit that has created a state constitutional crisis. After adopting a new execution policy that the Lincoln Journal Star reported "was written in a single draft without input from the governor, attorney general, Corrections director, outside experts or other state officials," the state Department of Correctional Services has drawn harsh criticism and multiple lawsuits for refusing to disclose information about its execution process to lawmakers, the media, advocacy groups, and prisoners. And after the state legislature issued a subpoena that would require Director Scott Frakes (pictured) to testify about the Department's latest efforts to obtain execution drugs and to respond to allegations that it has not complied with federal drug laws on the handling of controlled substances, state Attorney General Doug Peterson sued the legislature to block Frakes from testifying. The Department's most recent refusals to release information—after having lost $54,400 in taxpayer money in a failed attempt to illegally import execution drugs from India—prompted lawsuits from legal advocacy groups, lawmakers, and prisoners demanding protocol transparency. Senator Ernie Chambers, a long-time opponent of capital punishment, filed a formal complaint with the legislature's Executive Board alleging, among other things, that the state's execution protocol violates federal requirements for handling controlled substances and that its refusal to provide information on the lethal-injection drugs violates the Nebraska Public Records Act. In an editorial, the Omaha World-Herald wrote: "The Nebraska news media and members of the Legislature have raised legitimate questions on that score. They’ve asked the state Department of Correctional Services for information involving its purchase of death penalty drugs and its planned procedure for carrying out an execution, to ensure the applicable laws and procedures were all followed. So far, the department has refused to provide answers. Its message, instead, has been: Just trust us. That’s not good enough." A Journal Star editorial criticized executive branch officials for "hypocritically refus[ing]" to subject themselves to public scrutiny. "We don’t know where the state obtained its lethal injection drugs," the editors wrote."We don’t know how the four-drug cocktail was tested. All we have ... is Corrections’ word that they were done in accordance with the law. Given the state’s costly failed attempts to illegally buy execution drugs overseas, that alone is not good enough." The editorial board said accountability means more than just punishing those convicted of murder. "Accountability must also extend to the state officials responsible for implementing and carrying out capital punishment. ... Before Nebraska can hold convicted killers accountable, it first must do so for itself – something it’s shown more interest in obfuscating than pursuing." The Omaha World-Herald encapsulated the issue as follows: "Is the state following the law in all respects regarding the death penalty, or isn’t it? State officials should stop trying to sidestep this central issue. For the sake of the public interest and respect for the law, they need to answer that question in full."

BOOK: “Surviving Execution” Chronicles Miscarriages of Justice in the Richard Glossip Case

In his new book Surviving Execution: A Miscarriage of Justice and the Fight to End the Death Penalty, Sky News reporter Ian Woods tells the story of his relationship with condemned Oklahoma prisoner Richard Glossip, whose case gained prominence after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review his challenge to the state’s lethal-injection procedures. Although Glossip’s case is most frequently associated with the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross and Oklahoma’s dramatic, last-minute recission of his execution warrant when the state’s anonymous drug supplier delivered the wrong execution drug, Surviving Execution focuses more on Glossip’s conviction itself and the author’s belief that Oklahoma is attempting to execute an innocent man. Glossip, who has consistently maintained his innocence, was prosecuted and sentenced to death in Oklahoma County by a prosecuting administration riddled with misconduct in capital cases. The book chronicles the details of Glossip’s conviction, exposing the numerous holes Woods sees in the state’s case. Against the backdrop of multiple execution dates, Woods explains how he developed a friendship with Glossip, and in turn, witnessed the intensive ourpouring of support that Glossip gained as his execution date approached, including the high-profile involvement of Sister Helen Prejean, actress Susan Sarandon, and British businessman Richard Branson. Woods—whom Glossip asked to witness the execution—also discusses his personal struggle over whether to watch a man die at the hands of the state. Glossip's execution, originally scheduled for January 2015, was stayed while the Supreme Court reviewed his lethal-injection case. After his narrow 5-4 loss in that case, Oklahoma rescheduled his execution for September 2015. That execution date was stayed by the Oklahoma courts to consider Glossip's claim of innocence. Ultimately, the state court gave the go-ahead for the execution, and Glossip's execution was rescheduled for later in the month. However, that execution attempt was halted when the state failed to obtain the correct lethal-injection drug and all executions in Oklahoma were put on hold while the state reviewed its execution procedures. Woods’ book attempts to combine journalistic independence with his search for the truth and his conclusion that Glossip was not guilty of the murder of victim Barry Van Trease. In a Sky News podcast just before the aborted execution was to occur, Woods summarized Glossip’s case, saying, “There is no incontrovertible proof that Richard Glossip is guilty of murder. No forensic evidence, no eyewitness account, other than that of the killer, who saved his own skin by blaming Richard. The state of Oklahoma is going to kill him on Wednesday, so I’m not going to sit on the fence any longer. I'm telling you: I think that’s wrong.” In Surviving Execution, Woods explains why.

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