Patrick B. McGuigan and Darla Shelden, The City Sentinel —
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma opponents of capital punishment assembled virtually to recommit themselves to the drive to end state-sanctioned executions in Oklahoma early this month.
The annual meeting for the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) transformed into an online gathering this year.
Highlight of the evening was the presentation of awards to champions of the cause.
Jimmy Lawson, Emma Rolls, Leslie Fitzhugh honored for work against death penalty
OK-CADP presents their Abolitionists Awards each year honoring individuals who have demonstrated “extraordinary effort to end the death penalty in Oklahoma.”
The Phil Wahl Abolitionist of the Year Award is named for a Methodist minister from Duncan and co-founder of OK-CADP, who was steadfast in his opposition to capital punishment.
Baich introduced the Wahl Award winner as a man of “trust, support and loyalty.”
Those words, he said, “define friendship.”
Baich said, “Jimmy Lawson was born in Oklahoma City and attended John Marshall High School, where he excelled in academics and athletics. He earned a Bachelor’s degree and M.B.A. from Oklahoma City University. He held numerous corporate positions and is an adjunct professor at Rose State College.
“When Jimmy’s best friend Julius Jones was wrongfully convicted and ended up on Death Row in Oklahoma, Jimmy did not abandon his friend. [Their] bond remained and Jimmy never gave up fighting for Julius. His work sparked a movement to shed light on the injustice in his friend’s case and those efforts, along with the good work of the coalition, have brought more attention to the inequities and injustices of the death penalty in Oklahoma.
“For all he has done, and all he will continue to do, I am honored to present the Phil Wahl Abolitionist of Year Award to Jimmy Lawson.”
Lawson was organizer of the historic July 31, 2018 Free Julius Jones rally at the Oklahoma State Capitol, which was attended by a crowd of around 300 people on a warm evening. The event drew worldwide television news and online coverage, as well as strong local analysis.
Receiving the recognition, Lawson said he dedicated “this award to my late father Bishop Lawson Sr. A man who stood for love and justice. I have strived to stand for the voiceless and have expected nothing in return; except to see my lifelong best friend Julius Jones walk out as a free man.”
Lawson praised the devotion and support of his wife and three daughters. He noted he and Julius Jones have been friends since their sixth grade year.
He gave a special “shout out” to Julius’ parents, “Mama Jones and Papa Jones, who treat me like another son.” He thanked the other two Jones siblings, “Antoinette and Tony, who treat me like another brother.”
In addition to his work as an adjunct professor at Rose State, he is a working financial advisor and seemingly tireless advocate. Lawson reflected, “Our strength is not guns, not money, but our voice. Our words can truly change the game.” He drew inspiration form the Gospel of St. John, in chapter 15, and the affirmation there is “no greater love” than to lay down your life for friends.
The program then advanced to presentation of the Opio Toure Courageous Advocate Award, a recognition named for the late State Rep. Opio Toure of Oklahoma City.
Randy Bauman, former supervisor of Oklahoma’s Federal Public Defender Capital Habeas Unit (CHU) praised the 2021 Opio Toure Awardee, his successor at CHU, Emma Rolls.
In an efficient yet detailed introduction, Bauman recalled her work before the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, when she presented two separate arguments in one day. He reflected, “The lawyers in the room are already thinking, ‘Damn, wow, no wonder she’s getting the award.’”
Bauman continued, explaining for non-lawyers that a circuit argument “is not a speech. It’s an opportunity to get questioned, grilled, by a panel of three 10th Circuit judges on why relief should be granted or denied.
“I say ‘opportunity’ because you certainly want a chance to answer any questions the judges have. But, as you can imagine, it’s not easy – it’s challenging, to say the least. Each argument requires a great deal of prep work, anticipating questions, and the lovely grilling by your colleagues trying to help you anticipate what might come up – even though it can be most anything.”
He reflected, “I don’t know exactly how to describe 2 in one day because I’ve never had to do it. I don’t think anyone ever has done what Emma did, two capital arguments back to back. I’m guessing she was ‘concerned.’ … And the results are two relief grants. It doesn’t get any better.”
In one case, “that of Roderick Smith, the death penalty was ruled off the table. That’s because of Rod Smith’s intellectual disability.”
As for the second case, Rolls “argued the claim that got the client a remand for an evidentiary hearing.
“As chief of the habeas unit, Rolls has been doing an excellent job leading, guiding, helping, the fine lawyers, investigators, and paralegals who form the last line of capital defense in Oklahoma. Emma is, well and truly, a servant-leader. And that fine team, by the way, is doing great work.”
Rolls was a study in both humility and efficiency of her own, saying she shared the honor with her predecessor, (Mr. Bauman). She reflected:
“Were it not for Randy, I’m sure I would not be accepting this award this evening. I am grateful for the opportunity he gave me when he hired me at the Capital Habeas Unit and then encouraged me to take on the supervisor position of the Unit. Next, I’d like to thank the family of Opio Toure for continuing to honor his legacy with this award. I’d also like to thank the members of the Coalition who fight with us to give a voice to the voiceless on death row. I share this award with numerous people:
“First, I share this award with all of the paralegals, investigators, and lawyers in the Capital Habeas Unit. My colleagues fight tirelessly, and they continue to buoy me through incredibly hard times.
“Second, I share this award with my husband, Lee Peoples, and my daughter, Amelia Peoples. They make a lot of room in our family life for this work. My work requires lots of nights, weekends, and I sometimes miss important events. Lee and Amelia never complain and they always offer love and support.
“And finally, I share this award with the many men on death row whom I have represented over the last 20 years. They have been my greatest teachers. I have learned more from them about humility, resilience, love, compassion, and the will to live. I am honored to represent them.”
Rolls encouraged “everyone to keep fighting. One day, the incremental change we are making will amount to the eradication of the barbaric practice of the death penalty. Continue to give a voice to the forgotten and keep pushing.”
The evening’s third honor was the Lifetime Abolitionist Award.
Joyce Jackson praised the work of honoree Leslie Fitzhugh, born in Boley and a longtime Oklahoma City resident.
Jackson hailed her friend as “authentic and socially conscious.” She quickly catalogued Fitzhugh’s list of professional and personal affiliations, (including 30 years with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections), characterizing her as – “a community servant and advocate” – as well as a mother, grandmother and Sunday school teacher.”
In summary, Jackson said “community service is in Leslie’s DNA. She is determined to make Oklahoma a better place.”
Accepting the honor, Fitzhugh described herself as “passionate about the work we do.”
She referenced a particular memory about the late Jim Rowan, a legendary attorney, OK County Public Defender and OK-CADP board member, who worked to oppose the death penalty and defend those accused of capital crimes. Fitzhugh remembered a conversation with Rowan concerning one of his clients in Tulsa. “That man had tears in his eyes,” she recalled. “It impressed me that he felt so strong about that issue. I miss Jim, and the work he was doing.”
Fitzhugh said she was “honored to work for … Julius Jones and his lovely, lovely family. … It takes all of us to make a difference.”
Marc M. Howard details ‘Unusually Cruel’ practices in American criminal justice system
The evening began with a presentation from keynote speaker Marc M. Howard, a professor at Georgetown University and founder of the Prisons and Justice Initiative. Howard spoke, via videotape and employing a detailed power point, from eight time zones away, in Europe.
Howard, author of the book “Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism” began his academic career teaching political science, with an emphasis on European politics. But helping to secure the release from prison of Marty Tankleff, a childhood friend, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his parents, redirected much of his life’s work.
Tankleff served 17 years before being exonerated with Marc’s help.
The case and the conviction have been deemed a contemporary “classic case of false confession.”
That labor transformed his view of the American system, Howard recounted, “My eyes had been opened to injustice, and I couldn’t go back to closing them again.”
Consequently, “I set out to try to bring people inside prisons into view, and to connect them with people on the outside through my nonprofit The Frederick Douglass Project.”
Howard told the OK-CADP audience he had come to understand “the tremendous humanity that is locked away and separated from us.”
Howard shared the shocking fact that America spends more on incarceration than on education. His analysis of what he called “staggering statistics” on that and other matters led to his scholarly and educational focus on issues of incarceration, comparative lack of opportunities for rehabilitation, and the ways in which the United States stands in marked contrast to other systems characterized by representative government and the rule of law.
With data-driven analysis, Howard noted that some 100 million Americans have some kind of criminal record. Another 20 million Americans have felony convictions, 15 million “touch the criminal justice system” each year, and 7 million Americans are under some form of correctional control.
Further, 2.7 million children have a parent in prison.
Another among those “just staggering statistics,” he said.
The U.S. has seven to ten times the incarceration rate of other democracies, yet does not fall among the nations with low crime rates.
Howard said the nation’s misuse of plea bargains, lengthy prison sentences, and conditions in prisons and jails drive the sense of despair for those who encounter the system. Summing up, he noted, “we have 5 percent of the world’s population but we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population.”
Given those statistics, he said the cultural question to ask is “How do we want people to behave once they get out?”
With that transition, he pointed to different standards for parole and surer possibilities for compassionate release as issues that impede “societal reentry.” Too often, “people are essentially set up to fail.”
He argued the historical factors in America contributing to harsher sentencing include Jim Crow laws, convict leasing, religion, the distortive effect of politics (elected D.A.s and prosecutors) and the “prison industrial complex” – including both businesses and unions.
Howard visited Julius Jones a year ago at the McAlester death row unit. He said he speaks with him regularly, and that Jones has spoken to his classes, as well as his sister Antoinette. He told attendees at the OK-CADP event: “His story is the classic story for why the death penalty is wrong. He has so much he can do if and when he comes home.”
Like other speakers, Howard affirmed the strong family support Julius Jones has in his struggle to escape execution and gain exoneration. He referenced “his amazing sister Antoinette.”
Howard encouraged attendees to “be aware of the flaws of the criminal justice system. Fortunately, this has become a bipartisan issue – vote for leaders who will work for reform.” He encouraged employers “to hire and support people who are coming out of prison.” He asked caring people to “visit a prison, get involved.” Howard founded the Frederick Douglass Project trying to get as many people as possible to visit a prison.
“Once you see incarcerated people on the inside and connect with them on a human level it’s hard to go back to the old tough on crime and demonization perspective,” he said.
Persons Executed and Exonerated, Julius Jones update
Early in the evening, Nathaniel Batchelder and Pat Hoerth Batchelder of The Peace House solemnly read the names of 34 persons executed, including 13 federal executions, since the last OK-CADP annual meeting (June 8, 2019) as well as the ten Oklahoma exonerees.
The coalition’s efforts to support aspects of the state Pardon and Parole Board’s expanded work on clemency and parole issues was featured in a report from Cece Jones-Davis.
An ordained minister, she recounted recent efforts in behalf of the Julius Jones Coalition she founded and has long guided.
Jones-Davis referred to the 2020 Oklahoma City screening of the film “Just Mercy.” Due to turnout and positive response to the film, she felt “we were on our way” at that point.
Then came the lengthy disruption of everything during the worldwide Pandemic of 2020-21. Jones and her team, during that time established contact with “Represent Justice,” a national organization working through avenues of public awareness. The Justice for Julius advocacy project is now a “micro-campaign” of the national group.
The Julius Jones Coalition, OK-CADP and other groups supported the efforts of Julius Jones’ federal public defenders Dale Baich and Amanda Bass (his colleague in the federal habeas unit based in Arizona) to press for a hearing before the state P&P Board. Initial success came with the P&P Board’s decision to hear the Jones case and others.
Throughout the past year, opponents of the death penalty worked in practical ways. Fresh in memory was the “faith walk” from Wesley United Methodist Church on N. Classen Boulevard in Oklahoma City. Hundreds gathered to accompany leaders on a walk to the P&P offices, where they submitted 6.2 million signatures on the Change.org petition asking for the commutation of Jones, Cece Jones-Davis stated.
The scheduled June hearing for Julius Jones before the P&P Board was delayed until September 13.
In her comments for the OK-CADP, Cece Jones-Davis asked for people to support the new September Stage Two commutation hearing for Julius. “Hold them accountable to that date and not delay it again,” she concluded.
Update on Oklahoma Executions
Emma Rolls delivered fresh remarks in a report on the more than two dozen men now on Oklahoma’s death row who could become eligible for execution dates, including Julius, depending on the outcome of a case in the U.S. district court for Oklahoma’s western district.
The state’s execution protocol has been legally challenged, Rolls reported. If that challenge does not succeed, the men could soon thereafter face execution dates.
The Oklahoma Corrections Department protocol for executions restored the highly controversial use of a lethal “drug cocktail” employed in the infamous botched executions of two men.
Rolls communicated a sense of urgency to her online viewers. She believes, after participating in a professional training process for P&P Board members, “the P&P Board will not rush through the hearings.”
She believes clemency will be granted in some cases.
However, she encouraged further advocacy for a transparent and impactful P&P process, saying, “The more attention this gets the better.”
Rolls has previously detailed legal reasons many now on death row should not be executed due to mental disabilities or tragic upbringings.
Customary Business, Prayers, and OK-CADP Sponsors
Rev. Don Heath, the OK-CADP chair, served as host for the annual meeting, during which customary business was conducted.
Heath encouraged support for the Bob Lemon Capital Defense Attorney Scholarship Fund, which provides financial support for professional training in matters of the death penalty.
Rev. Dr. Larry T. Crudup of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Oklahoma City delivered the benediction. He prayed:
“May God continue to care for Julius, and the Jones Family as liberation comes. May God’s strength stir you to never grow weary in doing good. (Galatians 6:9) May God’s voice engulf you to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. (Proverbs 31:8) May God’s discernment guide you to judge fairly. (Proverbs 31:9) May God’s justice compel you to defend the rights of the poor. (Proverbs 31:9)
“And as you stand as abolitionists and carriers of divine love, may you continue to have eyes that see the best in people, hearts that forgive the worst in people, minds that forget the bad in people, and a soul that never loses faith in Justice and in God. Leave in peace, Live in Power, Love on Purpose.”
Rev. Crudup’s benediction concluded the proceedings.
Rev. Kayla Bonewell of The Church of the Open Arms delivered the invocation to begin the evening of hope and affirmation for those on death row, and for those working to end government imposition of the death penalty. “We gather here today to pray for and advocate on behalf of those affected by the death penalty,” she said. “Not only for those on death row, but for their family and friends, for victims and perpetrators, for the innocent and the guilty…We pray that you will empower us with the virtues of reconciliation – not of vengeance.”
OK-CADP event sponsors for 2021 included Edmond Trinity Christian Church, Emma Rolls, First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Conference of Churches, Oklahoma Innocence Project, and St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church.
Organizational members of OK-CADP include the ACLU of Oklahoma; Amnesty International Oklahoma City; Brennan Society; Catholic Conference of Oklahoma; Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-OK); Criminal Justice & Mercy Ministries –United Methodist OK Conference; Divine Worship Center – Edmond Trinity Christian Church; End Violence Everywhere – Episcopal Diocese OK Peace & Justice Commission; Faith in Action Commission Christian Church Oklahoma; First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City, Joy Mennonite Church; Kansas/Oklahoma Conference United Church of Christ; Murder Victims Families for Human Rights; National Association of Social Workers Oklahoma Chapter; National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice, Oklahoma Chapter; NAACP Oklahoma City Chapter; Oklahoma Conference of Churches; Oklahoma County Public Defenders; Oklahoma Cure; Oklahoma Indigent Defense System; The Peace House; Oklahoma City Religious Society of Friends; St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish, St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church Social Justice Committee, and many individual advocates and supporters.
Disclosure: The authors of this story are members of OK-CADP. The City Sentinel newspaper was in past years an event sponsor, and has made frequent contributions to support the group’s work, including this year.
Note: The City Sentinel is an independent, non-partisan and locally-owned newspaper based in Oklahoma City. The newspaper is published in Oklahoma City, with a ‘24/7’ online presence.