By Darla Shelden
Nearly 200 guests from across the state gathered at the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s 22nd Annual Membership and Awards Dinner recently held in Oklahoma City.
The evening featured keynote speaker former Los Angeles District Attorney, Gil Garcetti, who shared why, after a 32 year career in law enforcement, he now advocates for abolishing the death penalty.
Participants including legislators, lawyers, judges, district attorneys, ministers, students and death penalty abolitionists gave a standing ovation after hearing Garcetti’s transformation story.
“I supported the death penalty while I was a Los Angeles County District Attorney, but I decided to change my position some years after I left office,” said Garcetti.
He learned that the death penalty costs the state of California $158 million every year.
Among his concerns were the immense costs of prosecutions, appeals process, and incarceration on death row and even more critical, the possibility of innocence.
Garcetti says he believes that murder victims’ families become victims themselves as they face years of torment by the legal process.
“You can ask for a speedy trial, but then you must ask did we really have all the facts before the execution.
“Since 1978 there have been 142 condemned prisoners on death row in the US that have been exonerated,” Garcetti said. “Oklahoma has had 10. Those 142 cases took roughly 14 years on average, between conviction and exoneration.”
Garcetti questions if America can afford the financial, moral or ethical costs and doubts that all prisoners on death row are guilty.
“When an innocent person is executed, you can’t bring them back,” he said.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater attended the event. “Members of this group are constituents of mine,” said Prater. “It’s very important to me what they think about the issues that I deal with on a daily basis.
“This is a group of wonderful people who I love, and though we may disagree on certain issues, I believe that it is important to continue an open and civil dialogue.”
Garcetti said, “I believe that if you keep someone in prison for the rest of their life, without possibility of parole, in the general population, society is protected. That is just punishment, and it’s so much cheaper.
“Given that it is proven that the death penalty doesn’t deter these horrific crimes – what is its purpose? Revenge? Probably.”
“If you really want to do something about preventing crime, you don’t execute someone. You put the money in schools, where kids can really learn. That’s where it all begins,” Garcetti added, noting 78 percent of all prisoners in the US are school dropouts.
“I hope that a DA, a chief of police, a sheriff, a judge, a legislator, a law school professor will hear what I’ve said, and that it will inspire her or him to undertake a study of the death penalty in Oklahoma,” challenged Garcetti. “First look at its costs, both financial and emotional and talk to your victims.
“I know there are individuals in the audience that have the respect and authority to undertake such a study. Maybe my trip to your state will be more than simply preaching to the choir. I hope so.”
Three OK-CADP members were recognized for their outstanding service.
State Senator Constance N. Johnson received the Phil Wahl Abolitionist of the Year Award presented by board member Marilyn Knott.
The Opio Toure Courageous Advocate Award was presented by board member Margaret Cox to attorney Mark Henricksen.
“The most effective way to stop this madness is when we finally convince the legislature that if it really wants to continue killing poor people it is going to have to raise the taxes on rich people,” said Henricksen
“I think that many people in this room will live to see the abolition of the death penalty in this country,” he added. “Collectively we are going to eliminate this stain on our national conscience.”
Co-chair Rex Friend bestowed the Lifetime Abolitionist Award to Lydia Gill-Polley, calling her the “heart and soul” of the organization.
Recipients of the new Bob Lemon Capitol Defense Attorney Scholarships were announced. It fosters ongoing professional development for more effective defending and appealing of death sentences.
Inaugural Scholarships went to Janella Spurlock, Investigator/Mitigation Specialist; Michael Johns, Capital Investigator; and Shena Burgess, Deputy Chief Public Defender from the Tulsa County Public Defenders Office and Joe Robertson, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.
Ben Jones, commuted from death, to life, then to freedom in 2011, and Tina Jenkins, sister of Ernest Marvin Carter, executed in 2002, read the names of those executed in the US during 2012-2013.
Family members of Mark Andrew Fowler, executed in 2001, Timothy Shaun Stemple and Garry Thomas Allen, both executed in 2012, were also present.
Polley said, “I believe that our job is to bring this issue of the death penalty out of the shadows and into the light of facts and reality. I believe we can overcome the sense of vengeance with love and misconceptions with facts.”
For more information, visit www.okcadp.org