By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – The 28th Annual Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) Awards Dinner & Meeting will feature Innocence Project’s Director of Post Conviction Litigation, Vanessa Potkin as keynote speaker.
The event will be held Saturday, June 8 at the Capitol View Event Center, 5201 N. Lincoln Boulevard, in Oklahoma City. It will include a cocktail reception, buffet dinner and awards program.
Vanessa is also an executive producer on the ABC documentary “The Last Defense” through Lincoln Square Productions. With a career specializing in wrongful convictions, the case of Julius Darius Jones, who has served over 19 years on Oklahoma’s death row, was a story that Potkin felt should be spotlighted in the seven part docu-series.
As a nationally recognized expert on wrongful convictions and the use of DNA to establish innocence, she has represented and exonerated over 30 innocent individuals. The group collectively served over 500 years of wrongful imprisonment, five of whom were originally prosecuted for capital murder.
Co-founded in 1992 by attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, Potkin joined New York City’s Innocence Project in 2000 as its first staff attorney.
In an article by Erica Commisso, of the Establishment, a multimedia site run and funded by women, Scheck said the following about Potkin, “She embodies the spirit of the Innocence Project. Exonerees all love her. She really catches their vitality, and she’s got a terrific sense of humor and a fighting spirit. She gets it.”
Regularly consulted by members of legal and legislative committees, media outlets, and others, Vanessa has helped to pioneer the model of post-conviction DNA litigation used nationwide to exonerate wrongfully convicted persons.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there have been 164 people exonerated from death row in the United States – 10 in Oklahoma.
In her work, Potkin maintains a post-conviction docket, crafts litigation strategy, writes motions, and litigates in trial and appellate courts nationwide. She works to secure post-conviction DNA testing.
DNA test results and other exculpatory evidence can be used by attorneys such as Potkin, in cases involving false confessions, erroneous eyewitness identification, informant testimony, faulty forensics, prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel.
Many of the above factors were in play in Julius Jones’ trial in 2000, according to Dale Baich, a member of Jones’ legal team.
“The Last Defense’ put a spotlight on Julius Jones’s case by telling a compelling story about the injustices and racism at play in his case and throughout the criminal justice system as a whole,” Baich told The City Sentinel. “The prosecution’s case against Julius has always rested on a shaky foundation, and the documentary further exposed that fact,” Baich added.
“Following a conviction, and as a case moves through the courts, procedural technicalities often prevent judges from looking at new and compelling evidence that a person’s constitutional rights have been violated.
“A documentary, unhindered by these technicalities, can educate members of the public about a case, help them understand what happened, and allow them to decide whether to hold their public officials accountable for what went wrong.” Baich added.
“The Last Defense” is executive produced by Academy award winning actress Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon for JuVee Productions, Christine Connor and Lee Beckett for XCON Productions, along with Potkin and Aida Leisenring for Lincoln Square Productions. The documentary aired on the ABC Television Network last summer and is available to view online.
In an interview with Newsday reporter Robert Brodsky, Potkin said, “Most people feel that if you are on death row it’s because there was really strong evidence of your guilt and the jury reached the right verdict. People are horrified to see how you can be sentenced to death based on so little.”
Oklahoma has had a moratorium on the death penalty since October 2015 after the wrong drug, (potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride – the drug approved as a part of the state’s three-drug protocol) was nearly used to execute Richard Glossip.
The Oklahoma DOC is currently working with the state Attorney General’s office to develop a new death penalty protocol incorporating nitrogen hypoxia, which has never been used before in the U.S. Until the new procedure is in place, all executions will remain on hold.
“We are honored to have Vanessa Potkin share her experience at the Innocence Project as well as tell how Julius Jones came to be selected as one of the two cases to be examined by ‘The Last Defense’ documentary,” said Rev. Don Heath, OK-CADP chair. “She will tell a compelling story from her body of work exonerating the wrongfully convicted.”
During the dinner program, OK-CADP will give out three awards to those working to abolish the death penalty in Oklahoma: the Opio Toure Courageous Advocate Award, the Phil Wahl Abolitionist of the Year Award, and the Lifetime Abolitionist Award.
Individual dinner tickets are $50, $15 for students, and sponsorships for tables of eight cost $400. To order tickets by mail, send checks along with guest’s names to: OK-CADP, P.O. Box 713, Oklahoma City, OK 73101-0713. Indicate “annual dinner” in the memo line.
To purchase tickets online, visit okcadp.org or call 405-532-5443.