Oklahoma’s wretched record on wrongful convictions
“Frontier justice” costs too many citizens of all races, creeds, and backgrounds their freedom and their lives. In the old days of the Wild West, vigilantes worked outside the judicial system to punish rivals regardless of their guilt or innocence. Today, outlaws operate inside the bureaucracy to secure criminal convictions at all costs.
Oklahoma — the notorious home of “Hang ‘Em High” executions — stands out for its decades of trampling due process, subverting public disclosure, perpetuating forensic junk science, manufacturing false accusations and enabling official misconduct.
Since 1993, 35 wrongfully convicted Oklahomans have been officially exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations; 15 inmates have been freed in the past decade. Almost half of the state’s exonerees had been convicted of murder; 17 percent for sexual assault. The reign of prosecutorial terror and forensic error by the late Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy and rogue Oklahoma City police department crime lab analyst Joyce Gilchrist resulted in at least 11 wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project. Those victims included:
Exoneree Curtis McCarty, who was sent to death row for a stabbing and strangulation murder after Macy withheld evidence and Gilchrist falsified blood evidence and destroyed hair evidence.
Exoneree Robert Lee Miller Jr., another death row inmate falsely convicted of two rapes and two murders based on a coerced confession and atrocious forensic misconduct involving junk analysis of semen, blood, saliva, human hair and dog hair.
Exoneree Jeffrey Pierce, who was falsely convicted of rape in 1986 based on Gilchrist’s misconduct and won a $4 million settlement from Oklahoma City.
Exoneree David Bryson, who was wrongfully convicted of kidnapping and rape and freed after 18 years in prison when Gilchrist’s destruction of evidence was discovered and follow-up DNA testing excluded him as the attacker.
Law enforcement and legal insiders alike have shared stories with me about good ol’ boys club corruption that crosses party lines in the Sooner State. Government prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys routinely cut deals. Judges bend over backwards to preserve “harmless errors” caused by flawed investigations, faulty verdicts and clerical incompetence. Police brass retaliate against whistleblowers. And, according to one veteran cop, Oklahoma City is a hopeless “nest of incestuous nepotism.”
Unlike neighboring Texas, where Dallas County prosecutors founded the first conviction integrity unit in the country (sparking the creation of 30 such agencies nationwide), not a single Oklahoma district attorney’s office has established an official mechanism to review tainted convictions. Nor does Oklahoma have anything like the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which investigates professional misconduct by crime labs and other entities that conduct forensic analyses used in criminal proceedings. The Texas panel was created in the wake of the infamous scandal at the Houston Police Department crime lab a decade ago and its audits led to the more recent shutdown of the Austin PD’s mess of a crime lab.
Meanwhile, no systemic reform ensued after the Macy/Gilchrist disgrace in Oklahoma. In fact, one of Gilchrist’s colleagues who admitted destroying rape kit evidence at her behest was kept on for nearly 15 more years until she mysteriously retired last year amid questions about her DNA testimony.
OCPD crime lab analyst Elaine Taylor’s work (challenged by at least eight independent scientists internationally over the past year) was at the center of illegal secret hearings last summer in the high-profile wrongful conviction of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw. He is serving 263 years for sexual assault allegations solicited by police, who ignored accusers’ wild contradictions and discrepancies, long rap sheets and drug-addled testimony during an out-of-control media feeding frenzy before and during trial. Taylor is the mother-in-law of Det. Rocky Gregory, the co-lead detective in the botched Holtzclaw investigation — a glaring conflict of interest undisclosed by police and prosecutors.
Kathleen Zellner, the nation’s most successful exoneration lawyer defending Holtzclaw against accusers’ high-dollar civil lawsuits, quipped that she was “surprised they have not put crime scene tape around (the) OKC crime lab.”
While appealing his case, Holtzclaw has faced a series of Keystone Kops blunders every step of the way, with the Court of Criminal Appeals failing to follow its own rules on publicly disclosing court protective orders; a court clerk who simply “forgot” to file a public notice of the state attorney general requesting the secret hearing transcripts and exhibits; the court admitting that Holtzclaw’s public defender, James Lockard, shouldn’t have been barred from the unconstitutional secret hearings; the court realizing more than a year late that its clerk had never formally filed a critical state attorney general’s motion under seal; and the clerk failing to properly tender Holtzclaw’s amended motion for an evidentiary hearing despite it being filed with the clerk more than a month ago.
This lackadaisical attitude toward matters of life and liberty pervades Okie culture.
Take the case of the missing sealed envelope in death row inmate Julius Jones’ appeal. Jones, a basketball star at the University of Oklahoma, has served 19 years in prison for a murder he steadfastly maintains he did not commit. Recent episodes of ABC’s “The Last Defense” spotlighted troubling inconsistencies in the testimony of the prosecution’s star witness, who took a plea deal; ineffective counsel by overwhelmed defense attorneys who called no witnesses at trial; and the glaring failure to test a central piece of evidence — a bandana purportedly warn by the shooter.
Last December, Jones’ appellate lawyers filed an application for post-conviction relief and related motions for discovery and an evidentiary hearing to consider newly discovered evidence of racial animus by a juror. Jones’ lawyers included supporting exhibits, which a court clerk instructed the legal team to place in a separate envelope labeled “protected material.” Through a chain of bureaucratic mishaps, the key exhibits were somehow lost until Jones’ investigator, Kim Marks, personally visited the clerk’s office in June and unearthed them. The court, which had rejected Jones’ appeal without seeing the missing exhibits, was forced to acknowledge two weeks ago that it couldn’t ignore its clerk’s “mismanagement of the exhibits” and has been forced to reconsider the case.
Chilling exit fact: Despite its wretched record on wrongful convictions the past two decades, not to mention three horrific botched executions in the last three years, Oklahoma’s incompetent and corrupted criminal justice system is set to resume putting people to death next year come hell or high water.
Silence over this human rights crisis is complicity.