By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – Oklahoma City resident James Thomas Rowan (May 25, 1944 – May 6, 2019) was a champion of social and criminal justice dedicated to public service. He worked his entire life to help the persecuted and underprivileged.
His obituary stated: Jim was a dedicated husband, proud father, zealous advocate, and devout member of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. He connected with people from every walk of life and often used this gift to defend those in their darkest moments. His presence in the community will be dearly missed and his spirit will not be forgotten.
Jim Rowan served in the US Army for two years with the 82nd Airborne Division, before attending the University of Oklahoma College of Law. While in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps, he earned Jumpmaster status.
In his 35 years of service, Jim tried 40 capital case as a public defender in Oklahoma County and for the Capital Trial Division of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS) in Norman. After a brief time in private practice, Rowan spent the last days of his life working to serve those who need it most in the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s office.
“Jim was a talented, quick witted lawyer,” said Cathy Hammarsten, Oklahoma County assistant public defender. “He was kind to his core and effortlessly funny. Jim’s dedicated work against the death penalty saved the lives of many clients. His passing is a great loss in the legal community and to the State of Oklahoma.
“I met Jim on my first day in August 1992,” Hammarsten added. “He was leaving OK County and going to OIDS. He was a giant in capital work even then. He came back to OK County almost seven years ago.”
As a longtime board member and former chair of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP), Jim was invaluable to the organization. He provided his service, guidance and generosity for nearly two decades.
“Jim’s death is such a huge loss,” said Margaret Cox, longtime OK-CADP board member. “He was a joyful warrior, and almost the perfect board member, knowledgeable but not domineering about it, willing to work often in totally unsung ways, and always ready with a kind word or a jovial anecdote. He was perfectly passionate about justice and treating people decently. He will be sorely missed.”
In 2013, Rowan co-founded, along with former OK-CADP chair Lydia Polley and Randy Bauman, former supervisor of Oklahoma’s Federal Capital Habeas Unit, the OK-CADP Bob Lemon Capital Defense Attorney Scholarship Fund. This essential program was created to financially assist capital trial attorneys in learning the special skills needed to defend people facing the death penalty.
Jim and his wife Sherry met when he was stationed at Fort Bragg in 1975. They were together for 43 years and had two children, Sarah and Daniel.
“Jim was immensely proud of his family, bragging on their accomplishments every chance he got,” his obituary stated. “He was also proud to be a member of the Rowan clan and took great delight in his Irish family traditions, such as storytelling and mischief making. Jim’s wisdom, corny jokes, and silly faces will be missed by his family, friends, colleagues, and fans.”
James Lockard, Deputy Division Chief at the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS) told The City Sentinel that he was privileged to work with Jim on three capital cases in the early 2000s.
“That’s the thing I will always remember most about Jim, the effort he gave every one of his clients,” said Lockard. “He was an ardent opponent of the death penalty, fighting that battle right on the front lines in the courtroom. He was tenacious and dedicated and he genuinely cared for his clients, as well as his co-workers, always looking to be a positive mentor for younger attorneys who worked with him. I will always appreciate the experience of having known and worked with him.”
Robert Ravitz, Chief Public Defender for Oklahoma County wrote: “Jim Rowan was a tireless fighter for justice for the oppressed, downtrodden, unliked, and often hated. Jim was a champion for civil liberties and an ardent foe of capital punishment. Jim believed that no matter what you did, or who you were, your life had meaning.
“Jim fought his whole life to try and end capital punishment, whether in the representation of individuals from the death penalty, his commitment to the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, or his protests against executions. Our prayers go out to his wife, Sherry, and his children and grandchildren, thanking them for sharing Jim with us.”
Former ACLU Oklahoma executive director Joann Bell said, “Jim was a champion and leaves behind a great legacy for justice and civil liberties. He leaves big shoes to try to fill.”
Pat McGuigan, publisher of The City Sentinel and member of Our Lady’s Parish said, “Jim coached his son for many years in soccer and I worked with him early in my eight-year stint at John Carroll School. He was an active member in the Knights of Columbus, Oklahoma Council No. 1038 and always helped with breakfasts and fundraising events at Our Lady’s Cathedral.”
Jim was an avid supporter and member of VOICE (Voices Organized in Civic Engagement), a local non-profit, serving as the organization’s second president.
VOICE co-founder Kristen King recalled, “Even after his presidency, Jim remained a strong supporter and advisor. Just two weeks before he died, he spoke at our criminal justice reform forum. He was at mass every single week and took communion to the shut-ins. Everything he did — his work, his social justice commitments, his family — all of that came from a deep and thoughtful practice of his faith. We will miss his conversation and his laughter at after-mass donut hour.”
Labor leader Tim O’Connor posted on Facebook, “Jim saw dignity in all who were on death row. A giant man in our midst.”
VOICE co-leader Sundra Flansburg stated in another Facebook post, “Jim was always a calm and fun presence with a strong sense of justice. He leaves behind a wonderful legacy.”
Jim was featured in two documentaries, “Killing of Richard Glossip” the story about an Oklahoma death row inmate and “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo,” which goes behind prison walls to follow three female prisoners as they participate in the 2007 Oklahoma State Penitentiary Rodeo. “In a state with the highest female incarceration rate in the country, these women share common experiences such as broken homes, drug abuse and alienation from their children,” reported Pat McGuigan of The City Sentinel.
Also featured in the film was Rowan’s client, Danny Liles, who served three decades for murder and was released in 2011.
Jim received several awards during his legal career including the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association Lord Erskine Award in 2002 and the OK-CADP Phil Wahl Abolitionist of the Year Award in 2008.
“I knew Jim from Our Lady’s Cathedral parish,” said former Gov. David Walters. “In fact, the Sunday before he died the church was standing room only for First Holy Communion. Rhonda had twisted her knee and stayed home and I found a seat next to Jim who was sitting alone. I leaned over and said, ‘My wife has an injured knee, what is your excuse? He leaned back and said his wife was Episcopalian’.
“Every Sunday for years Jim would receive communion and then also take communion in a small round container for people who could not make it to mass but that he obviously visited,” Walters continued. “A big guy with a huge heart and a warm demeanor who always seemed focused, in a friendly non-obvious way, on service. He is the type of person that makes one want to describe him with three good’s for adjectives. Jim Rowan was a good, good, good man. May he rest in peace.”