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Federal Public Defender Patti Ghezzi retires after highly regarded career

Patti Palmer Ghezzi. Photo provided.

By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter

OKLAHOMA CITY – Assistant Federal Public Defender Patti Palmer Ghezzi has retired after 12 years at the Western District of Oklahoma office located in Oklahoma City.

“Those who know Patti know what a hero for justice she has been throughout her career; for those who don’t know I’ll put it this way: Patti has always been Oklahoma’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said Randy Bauman, former Supervisor of Oklahoma’s Capital Habeas Unit (CHU), where he and Ghezzi worked together.

“Most recently and for many years Patti brilliantly defended prisoners sentenced to death, concluding spectacularly with a Supreme Court case holding Oklahoma had long been illegally prosecuting cases in Indian country,” Bauman added.

“Patti won the Sharp v. Murphy case in the Tenth Circuit,” he said. “That was the pioneering win.”

The case was first heard by the Supreme Court in its 2018-2019 term. Ghezzi said the U.S. Supreme Court hadn’t been involved in the case until Murphy won the 10th Circuit decision.

In 2015, Patti Palmer Ghezzi – whose work has included preparation of appellate briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court — garnered the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty’s Opio Toure Courageous Advocate Award. Presenting the award that evening to Ghezzi, Bauman insisted, “There is simply no one like her.”

Thanking her fellow attorneys and members of the coalition, Ghezzi told the crowd she was honored to receive an award named for Toure, the former state legislator and civil rights legend.

According to reporter Jody Allen, of the Sapulpa Times, “as a child, Ghezzi moved to Sapulpa with her family when in 1966 her father, Tom Palmer, was made superintendent of Sapulpa Schools. Ghezzi graduated from Sapulpa High School in 1970 before going on to become a federal public defender for the Western District of Oklahoma.”

Ghezzi attended undergraduate and law school at the University of Oklahoma graduating in 1977. She worked for a non-profit organization called the Native American Center, which had several components, one being a small legal office that handled cases for individual tribal members, criminal cases, Indian child welfare cases, etc., where Ghezzi served.

“The first significant case I handled was a case involving a juvenile who was charged in state court with killing another juvenile at the Chilocco Indian school in Kay County,” Ghezzi told The City Sentinel. “The prosecutor was seeking the death penalty and it went up on an interim appeal on the juvenile issue where we had raised the issue that the state did not have criminal jurisdiction over our client’s crime.  

“The OCCA (Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals) agreed with us, the state sought certiorari but it was denied,” Patti said.

“Susan Work and I handled the case,” Ghezzi said. “Susan has remained a mentor in Indian country issues.  She helped me with the 10th circuit brief, she was also the writer for the amicus brief by the scholars and historians in both Murphy and McGirt.”

Ghezzi served at the state agency of the Indian Affairs Commission, where she worked in training DHS employees and facilitating the Indian Child Welfare Act.

In 1980 Patti worked for the Appellate Public Defender’s Office, forerunner to the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS), where she represented both capital and non-capital cases on direct appeal. She later became the Chief of the Capital Direct Appeals Division at OIDS and its executive Director in 1990.

Ghezzi then went into general private practice in Pawhuska, but continued to represent criminal defendants as well as parents and children in Indian Child Welfare Act cases.

“In 2008 I went to work for the Western District of Oklahoma’s Federal Public defender’s office representing capital clients, and I was handed Phillip Murphy’s case because Randy Bauman knew of my Indian country experience,” Ghezzi said. “The rest is history, I am told.”  

Bauman and Ghezzi worked together on Glossip v. Gross, Supreme Court lethal injection challenge, along with Robin Konrad and the Arizona Capital Habeas Unit prior to the Murphy case.

Regarding her retirement, on her last day of work (9-30-20) Patti posted on Facebook: “I will miss my clients who have taught me so much and have appreciated all that I did for them whether I lost or won in the courts. 

“It was an honor and a calling to fight these fights against all odds, and I will be forever grateful to federal public defender Susan Otto, who remains client-centered despite distractions and hurdles (mountains?) imposed from above. 

“I have worked with incredible lawyers, investigators, and paralegals,” Ghezzi added. “I won’t miss suiting up every day (although I fudged on that a few times) I won’t miss signing in and out every day, but I will desperately miss the sound of laughter drifting from down the hall from Anna Evanchyk Wright and Julie Gardner, both, who could get anyone to talk to them, had such great insight into our clients and their families and whose senses of humor helped carry me through tragedies and spectacular victories. Thanks for the ride,” Ghezzi stated.

Postings from friends and colleagues praised Ghezzi for her work as a Federal Public Defender.

“Congratulations to our dear friend and colleague Patti Ghezzi on her recent retirement as an Assistant Public Defender for Oklahoma County Capital Habeas Unit. We love you and hate to lose you – but know your retirement is extremely well deserved. Thank you,” wrote one admirer.

Kalyn Free, former District Attorney in Southeastern Oklahoma, the youngest attorney ever hired by the U.S. Department of Justice, and a tribal citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, referred to Patti on Facebook as “the legal architect behind the SCOTUS ruling on reservations in Oklahoma.” 

Attorney Susan Work said in a post about Patti: “It’s crazy that our work together started with the Chilocco (CMG) Indian country case when we were at the Native American Center in OKC, fresh out of law school, and here we are 40 years later! Fun teamwork.

“The decision, in this case, would not have occurred without Patti’s dedicated and careful work for many years, resulting in a great Tenth Circuit opinion in the Murphy case, and the fantastic decision today in McGirt,” stated Work.

Kristi Christopher, Division Chief, OIDS Capital Post-Conviction Division, said, “Patti – Congrats on an amazing career. You have been a tireless advocate for your clients and an unbelievable resource for the rest of us. You are there anytime I need your help. I apologize that the times I have needed you most lately have been nights and weekends and promise to give my best effort to let you retire in peace.”

Meghan LeFrancois, with the Capital Habeas Unit at the Federal Public Defender Office, said, “Congratulations Patti! What an incredible career. I’ve learned so much from you and I miss you already.”

Ghezzi will be recognized with the prestigious Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher Diversity Award from the Oklahoma Bar Association during their upcoming virtual convention in November.

While attending the 2013 Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty annual dinner, former Assistant Federal Public Defender Patti Palmer Ghezzi speaks with legal icon, the late James Rowan, who tried 40 death penalty cases in his 35 years of service as a Public Defender in Oklahoma County and for the Capital Trial Division of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System in Norman. Photo by Darla Shelden
A young Patti Palmer Ghezzi is featured in a story in The Oklahoman in January 1979 in which she represented Carlton Grass, a 16-year-old youth charged with the slaying of another Indian at Chilocco Indian School.   The Oklahoman/Photo by Roger Klock.

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