By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
The Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) and the University of Central Oklahoma’s American Democracy Project recently co-hosted two events on the UCO campus in Edmond.
The Coalition’s 23rd Annual Membership Meeting and Awards Dinner featured guest speaker Rob Warden, executive director and co-founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law
An award-winning legal affairs writer, Warden is the author of numerous books, articles and commentaries on criminal justice issues. He joined with Northwestern University Law Professor Lawrence C. Marshall to start the Center on Wrongful Convictions in 1999.
“In November of 1998, we got 29 people together from around the country that had been released from death rows,” Warden said. “The highlight of the conference was this plenary session when we had each of these people walk across the stage and say something like ‘My name is Greg Wilhoit, and if the state of Oklahoma had its way, I’d be dead today.’
“When it was over Marshall said, ‘Let them tell us that their death penalty works.’ The audience came to a standing ovation. I was sitting on the front row with my wife and I said, ‘I think we’re going to abolish the death penalty.’”
The Center identifies and works to rectify wrongful convictions. It has been instrumental in more than 30 exonerations. Under Warden’s leadership, the Center led the public education effort that culminated in Governor George Ryan’s decision to grant clemency to all Illinois death row prisoners in 2003.
Warden believes New Hampshire, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and eventually California will be added to the list to abolish the death penalty.
“California is approaching 900 people on death row and haven’t executed anybody in twelve years. They’re spending money in maintaining a broken capitol punishment system. It’s far more expensive than if you kept all of these people in prison for life.”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the average cost of defending a trial in a federal death case is $620,932, about 8 times the cost of cases where the death penalty is not sought.
“Even this conservative Supreme Court has voided the death penalty for the mentally ill and for juveniles finding that it violates contemporary standards of decency.”
Warden is certain that many innocent people have been executed.
“I have no doubt it happened several times in Texas, a couple of cases in Virginia and certainly two in Missouri where I think it’s abundantly clear they executed the wrong people.”
Warden told The City Sentinel that he believes the current lethal injection controversy is “a scandal.” “The Attorney General of Oklahoma says he’s gotten these drugs legally from a legitimate manufacturer, approved by the FDA, but it’s impossible. A legitimate manufacturer approved by the FDA should make a least one of the drugs in sufficient quantity, in a dosage required by the protocol.
“We’ve carried out a lot of executions in this country in the face of some very serious questions about guilt or innocence. Even more obscene are cases where people are denied DNA testing or maybe they’ve had preliminary DNA testing but there’s better technology that would now yield a better result.”
Oklahoma has had several cases in the past in which former police chemist Joyce Gilchrist falsified test results, hid or destroyed evidence and gave false testimony in order to help secure death penalty convictions
Gilchrist was the lead forensic analyst in 23 cases that ended in death sentences – 11 of the defendants in those cases have been executed.
The Death Penalty Information Center ranks Oklahoma with the highest number of executions per capita.
Warden said, “Oklahoma is the state where we ought to be focusing on the death penalty and what’s wrong with it.
“In the US if you ask, do you favor the death penalty, 60 percent of the people will say yes according to Gallop. But if asked, which do you believe is the more appropriate punishment for murder, the death penalty or life without parole, a majority will answer life without parole.”
Warden says that factors contributing to the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois include support of the media and providing spokespeople that had been on death row.
“Oklahoma had a wonderful spokesperson, the late, great Greg Wilhoit. The story he told with humor mixed with sadness was so compelling. Unfortunately Greg is not here to serve that role.”
Wilhoit, 59, who had spent five years on Oklahoma’s death row after being wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife, died on Feb. 13. His sister Nancy Vollertsen, a Witness to Innocence board member from Edmond, attended the dinner.
“The US Supreme Court will have to confront this issue on the basis that it violates the contemporary standards of decency,” Warden said.
Adam Leathers, OK-CADP co-chair said, “The death penalty is an archaic and barbaric means of seeking vengeance and has nothing to do with justice or crime prevention. We also believe it is overtly racist and works against the poor.”
OK-CADP recognized several members for their outstanding service in support of death penalty abolition. Oklahoma City attorney and board member Jim Rowan presented the Opio Toure Courageous Advocate Award, to Oklahoma Indigent Defense System attorney Bill Luker.
Activist Becky Van Pool received the Phil Wahl Abolitionist of the Year Award presented by board member Mary E. Sine.
Leathers presented the Opio Toure Courageous Legislator to State Representative Seneca Scott, who over the past two years has presented bills to investigate how Capitol Punishment is administered in Oklahoma.
And former OK-CADP co-chair Lydia Polley bestowed the Lifetime Abolitionist Award to Bob Lemon and his daughter Robyn Lemon Sellers.
Through his generous support Lemon, namesake of the Bob Lemon Capital Defense Attorney Scholarship Fund, sent eight attorneys to receive national level training so they could defend the abolition of the death penalty.
Lemon said, “I hope and pray that in the future when we get together for this or some similar occasion that Lydia Polley will no longer be ringing the bell for those executed because there will be no more taking of life by the state, and not only in this nation, but every nation around the world.”
Preceding the dinner, a debate on “Why & How to Dismantle the Death Penalty” featured University of Central Oklahoma Debate Team members Dr. Matthew Moore, Director of Debate; Derek Hilligoss, Austin Fredericks, and Greg Munday.
Sponsored by the University of Central Oklahoma’s American Democracy Project (ADP), it examined the Oklahoma Justice Commission’s call for reforms to the criminal justice system and the abolishment of the death penalty.
Speakers spoke against the death penalty, favoring a sentence of life in prison without parole.
“So the good news is we’re going to abolish the death penalty, the only question is when,” Warden said. And we will.”
For more information, visit okcadp.org or law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions.