Celebrities, PR teams rally on some death row cases in Oklahoma, but others are ignored | New
OKLAHOMA CITY – There was no famous person around John Marion Grant in the hours leading up to his execution last month. Few Americans would likely have known his name without the fact that he was the first inmate to be executed in Oklahoma in nearly seven years.
Meanwhile, an organized PR team, a prime-time documentary and a host of celebrities including reality star Kim Kardashian, NFL quarterback Baker Mayfield and NBA star Russell Westbrook, have arguably made Julius Jones – the next inmate on the verge of death – a household name.
An online campaign calling on the state to suspend Jones’ execution on Nov. 18 had garnered more than 6.4 million signatures.
A separate high-level public relations campaign is also being carried out on behalf of death row inmate Richard Glossip. Sister Helen Prejean, one of the country’s most prominent nuns and author of the book “Dead Man Walking”, is her lawyer and spiritual advisor. She only takes on a handful of cases, but became convinced of her innocence after he wrote to her. Dr. Phil McGraw also recently presented the case of Glossip.
By comparison, the planned execution of Bigler Stouffer II, slated for December 9, elicited little public outrage. Only 4,119 people have signed an online petition trying to stop his execution despite claims by a quieter group of supporters that there is evidence of Stouffer’s innocence in the shooting death of a professor from popular school decades ago.
“I think just as the system is arbitrary in determining who goes on death row in the first place, it is somewhat arbitrary in determining which cases attract attention,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Center for Human Rights. information on the death penalty. “They sure don’t get the attention until someone has a good lawyer and something is immediately obvious to be very wrong.”
Dunham said that when he practiced law he represented innocent people who did not have the same level of attention as other inmates. He represented Harold Wilson, who was convicted and sentenced to death for a triple murder in a crack house in Pennsylvania. Wilson was then cleared.
He said celebrities have championed the causes of Glossip and Jones because they are “so exceptional” and there is strong evidence of innocence. He also said the issue of celebrity involvement is not unique to Oklahoma. Celebrities have also weighed in on death penalty cases in other states.
“Certainly, when these things get so high profile, there has to be a central core of truth that attracts so many people,” Dunham said. “And then there has to be some part of this case that is sensational in one way or another. I don’t think you can say that these cases don’t deserve a big following. I think you can tell. that there are many other cases which also deserve many followers, but never get them. “
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said he didn’t think celebrity support or access to a good public relations team should influence the outcome of the court process.
“The fact that one inmate has one PR device and another doesn’t affect my office at all,” he said. “It shouldn’t either… Every case, if it is to get to this point in terms of capital punishment, has been examined very thoroughly by the criminal appeals court. By the time he arrives at our office, we are convinced that the inmate is guilty of the charge and that it was heinous. “
A total of 45 people are on Oklahoma death row and 30 have exhausted all remedies, O’Connor said.
Griffin Hardy, a spokesperson for Prejean, said no case was more important than another.
“It’s just that there is sometimes a confluence of factors which, when it all comes together, this is the type of case that bursts into public consciousness,” he said.
Hardy also said there may be common threads and societal concerns that draw broader coalitions of people to inmate causes, such as evidence that racism played a role in the outcome or evidence of innocence. .
Glossip was twice convicted in the 1997 for-hire murder of Oklahoma City motel owner Barry Van Treese. Convicted hitman Justin Sneed has been sentenced to life without parole. Glossip maintains his innocence and says that Sneed acted alone and then pointed the finger at him to avoid the death penalty.
“The feeling that I have worked directly on a lot of these cases is that a lot of times, high-level people are really involved to get the public’s attention and support,” Hardy said. “But public pressure doesn’t really win the case. At the end of the day, these are always legal proceedings, legal questions. “
Hardy said that while public pressure can play a role in determining the outcome, no court, governor or pardon and parole board is going to commute a sentence just because a million people have called.
“They have to have a real and legally justified reason for doing it,” Hardy said. “And so attention helps, but what’s really key to all of this is having a good legal team who can investigate the facts, who can make the arguments, who can give decision-makers the reasons. that they need to make the right decision. “
In the case of Julius Jones, supporters say hundreds of thousands of people convinced of his real innocence have urged state leaders to commute his sentence, grant clemency or suspend his execution.
Jones was convicted of first degree murder in the 1999 carjacking death of 45-year-old insurance executive Paul Howell. Howell was robbed and shot in the head in the driveway of his parents’ house in Edmond. Authorities said they later found the murder weapon wrapped in a red bandana in the attic above the ceiling of Jones’ closet. Authorities said the killer was wearing a red bandana.
Jones has maintained his innocence.
Kelli Masters, who describes herself as a lawyer, said she was not aware of Jones’ case until someone involved in her public relations team contacted her 18 months ago and asked her write a letter to Governor Kevin Stitt on behalf of Jones. .
Masters, of Oklahoma City, who is a sports agent, had never argued for an inmate and declined to speak until she read the transcripts, appeals and reviewed the evidence. She also felt compelled to meet Jones twice on death row.
“I knew deep down that if I knew I was really going to go out and fight for him, I had to talk to him face to face and make my own determination that made me happy,” Masters said.
She said she was struck by Jones’ frankness that bad decisions as a teenager put him in a position where he could be convicted of murder. She also said he didn’t know he had become a household name.
Masters, who said she was not an activist against the death penalty, said Jones’ cause has enjoyed wide support from the Christian community, the conservative community and the Oklahoman who believe that it is “very, very convincing”.
“I don’t know all the celebrity mentions and attention and stuff,” she said. “I guess in a way I’m grateful because otherwise I might not have heard of it.”
Claremore Progress Editor-in-Chief Chelsea Weeks contributed to this report.