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 be held Saturday, June 8 at the Capitol View Event Center, 5201 N. Lincoln Boulevard, in Oklahoma City. A cocktail reception will begin at 5 p.m., followed by a buffet dinner at 6 p.m. and awards program at 7 p.m.
The event will pay tribute to Oklahoma County public defender, death penalty foe and longtime coalition board member Jim Rowan, who unexpectedly passed away on May 6.
Keynote speaker for the event will be Innocence Project’s Director of Postconviction Litigation, Vanessa Potkin. As a nationally recognized expert on wrongful convictions, Vanessa has represented and exonerated over 30 innocent individuals.
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.
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.
Regularly consulted by members of legal and legislative committees, media outlets, and others, Vanessa has helped to pioneer the model of postconviction DNA litigation used nationwide to exonerate wrongfully convicted persons.
“We are excited that Vanessa Potkin will be talking to us about the important work that the Innocence Project is doing,” said Rev. Don Heath, OK-CADP chair. “We also are looking forward to hearing her insights about the Julius Jones case.”
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there have been 165 people exonerated from death row in the United States since 1976 – 10 in Oklahoma.
“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,” federal public defender Dale Baich, a member of Jones’ legal team, told The City Sentinel.
“A documentary 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.
In an interview with Newsday, Potkin stated, “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.
In 2018, the State of Oklahoma announced that nitrogen hypoxia would be its new execution protocol. However, death by gas mask has never been used as a mode of execution in the United States, and Oklahoma has been unable to obtain a device that would “appropriately introduce nitrogen into an individual’s system.” The state is now ready to “develop the machine themselves,” according to Attorney General Mike Hunter.
“It violates the Hippocratic oath for doctors to do harm, and reputable businesses don’t want anything to do with executions,” Heath said. “Nitrogen hypoxia has the same issues as lethal injection.”
Until the new protocol is in place, the moratorium on executions in Oklahoma will continue.
During the program, OK-CADP will elect at-large board members and give out three awards.
The OK-CADP Lifetime Abolitionist Award will be given posthumously to honor attorney James Thomas Rowan (May 25,1944 – May 6, 2019), who served on the OK-CADP board of directors for nearly two decades.
Rowan tried 50 capital cases during his 35 years of service working as a public defender with Oklahoma County and for the Capital Trial Division of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS) in Norman. Following a brief private practice, Jim returned to the Oklahoma County Public Defender Office, where he worked until his unexpected and sudden death.
In 2013, Rowan, along with former OK-CADP chair Lydia Polley and Randy Bauman, former supervisor of Oklahoma’s Federal Public Defender Capital Habeas Unit, co-founded the OK-CADP Bob Lemon Capital Defense Attorney Scholarship Fund. This program commits financial aid for capital defense attorneys to attend national training events in order to further their professional development in the areas of trials, mitigation, appeals, and victim outreach.
Among his numerous awards, Rowan was honored with the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association Lord Erskine Award in 2002 and the OK-CADP Phil Wahl Abolitionist of the Year in 2008.
“Jim Rowan cared for the least of these,” Heath said. “We all owe a debt of gratitude to Jim for helping to save dozens of lives.”
Recipients of the 2019 OK-CADP Opio Toure Courageous Advocate award are Dale Baich and Amanda Bass, attorneys for the Federal Public Defender’s Capitol Habeas Unit in the District of Arizona, and legal representatives for Julius Jones.
Cece Jones-Davis, founder of Sing for Change, Inc., and advocate for Jones, will be honored with the Phil Wahl Abolitionist of the Year Award.
Tickets for the OK-CADP 28th Annual Dinner are $50, $15 for students, and sponsorships for tables of ten are available for $500.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit okcadp.org.