OKLAHOMA CITY – State Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, hosted an interim study today focusing on death penalty procedures in Oklahoma and whether changes are needed to avoid executions of innocent people.
The study was held before the House Public Safety Committee and featured eight defense and prosecution experts.
“I am a proponent of the death penalty as are a majority of Oklahomans,” McDugle said. “But I believe it is possible for an innocent person, because of poor representation and because of inadequacies in our current system, to get all the way to death row. If we are going to put someone in the chair and end their life, as Oklahomans, we have got to get this right.”
First to speak to the committee was Don Knight, the new attorney for death row inmate Richard Glossip. Knight spoke of evidence he said proves his client’s innocence and points to the guilt of another person instead. The evidence has been refused in court, however, because it came after the first appeal process, he said.
Bob Ravitz, public defender for Oklahoma County, followed Knight’s testimony.
It is the duty of the prosecution not just to win cases but to ensure that justice is actually done, he said.
Ravitz spoke about the importance of having an independent crime lab, making several mentions of former Oklahoma City Police Department forensic chemist Joyce Gilchrist who was dismissed in 2001 after being accused of falsifying evidence and laboratory mismanagement. Gilchrist participated in more than 3,000 criminal cases in her 21 years with the police department. Her evidence led in part to 23 people being sentenced to death, 12 of whom were executed.
Ravitz also spoke about the need for more funding for defense attorneys and the high cost of expert witnesses and forensic investigations, which often limit public defenders. He also referenced the recommendations of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, which he argued sit on a bookshelf un-adopted.
Trent Baggett, executive coordinator of the Oklahoma District Attorney’s Council, refuted that, saying the council has done everything they were asked to do in the commission’s recommendations. He said they’ve offered the trainings specified, and they comply with open-file discovery in the pre-trial phase as specified in state statute.
He did say that new or newly discovered evidence is probably not often made available to a defendant’s new attorney once a case has been tried and decided, as is the case for Glossip. He said that would be for a court to determine if the evidence is credible and if the case should be retried. He said the charge of the ineffective assistance of council is also something for the Court of Criminal Appeals to decide.
Christy Shepherd with the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, shared her personal history with the criminal justice system. Shepherd’s cousin, Debbie Carter was murdered in Ada in 1982. The two men convicted of the crime – one of whom was sentenced to death – were later exonerated by DNA evidence. Another man later received the death penalty in the case but had his conviction overturned to life without parole instead. The case was made famous by author John Grisham and has been the subject of a documentary.
Shepherd said she’s since received a degree in criminal justice and has studied the system for years. When asked whether she is for the death penalty, she said morally, yes, but systematically no. She is very against because the state does not have the system set up to carry out the death penalty as it should be, she said.
She believes most Oklahomans voted in favor of the death penalty because they believe the system works like it should, but she pointed to her own family’s angst over seeing the wrong men convicted of her cousin’s murder.
“It’s not justice when we had the wrong man in prison, and the actual murderer has gone free and committed other crimes,” she said.
Also speaking at today’s study was Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and Scott Crow, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Both sought to assure the committee that Oklahoma’s process and protocols are being thoroughly reviewed and refined before executions resume in the state at a yet unknown date.
Tom Bates, newly appointed executive director of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, explained the board’s limited role in death penalty cases, including the clemency hearing process. He also said he is aware of the Death Penalty Review Commissions’ recommendations but said some of those will need to be handled through legislation.
Craig Sutter, executive director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, spoke to the board as well, explaining how the system works throughout the state.