An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.  - Gandhi

28th Annual Dinner features Innocence Projects’ Vanessa Potkin and pays tribute to death penalty foe Jim Rowan

From left: Keynote speaker Vanessa Potkin, attorneys Dale Baich and Amanda Bass, and Rebecca Postyeni, investigator for the Federal Public Defender Office in Arizona. Photo by Darla Shelden

By Patrick B. McGuigan and Darla Shelden for The City Sentinel

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK –Nearly 200 guests attended the 28th Annual Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) Awards Dinner & Meeting on Saturday, June 8 at the Capitol View Event Center in Oklahoma City. The evening included a cocktail reception, a buffet dinner by Ingrid’s Catering, followed by an awards program.  Flowers were provided by A Date With Iris.

“It was energizing to have so many people in the same room whose life’s work is supporting and carrying for the least of these,” said Rev. Don Heath, OK-CADP chair.

The event paid 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 was 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.

Vanessa, along with Academy Award winning actress Viola Davis, was the executive producer on the ABC documentary “The Last Defense” through Lincoln Square Productions. 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. Vanessa has helped to pioneer the model of postconviction DNA litigation used nationwide to exonerate wrongfully convicted persons.

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.

Introducing keynote speaker Vanessa Potkin, Executive Director for the Oklahoma Innocence Project and former Oklahoma County prosecutor, Vicki Behenna pointed out that the 30 individuals exonerated by the work of Potkin and her allies spent a total of 500 years of wrongful imprisonment. She stressed that five of those individuals were on death row.

Potkin’s speech was an insightful review of fault lines throughout the criminal justice system, with particular emphasis on capital cases.

In a succinct review of the “The Last Defense,” taking about a dozen minutes of her keynote address, Potkin summarized the wide range of problems surrounding Oklahoma death row inmate Julius Jones’ conviction and sentencing. Her survey included a recounting of several contradictory versions in the statements of a key prosecution witness, discrepancies and lack of transparency in the deal offered to that individual, racial issues in the jury pool and other aspects of the Jones process, and dubious use of forensic science.

More broadly, Potkin provided a wide-ranging review of evidence about the ways death penalty processes are flawed beyond repair. Yet, she pointed out, as a practical matter, “Most of the issues addressed by the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission have yet to be addressed.”

Crediting the state for recently enacting reforms aimed to offset the shortcomings of eyewitness testimony in capital cases, she noted that several other weaknesses in the legal process (including false, sometimes coerced, confessions) have yet to be corrected.

While advocating for the Commission’s reforms, Potkin said the human factor makes executions persistently suspect: “There will never be a day when we can eliminate possible error in the death penalty system.”

In the end, Americans are shifting on capital punishment because, as the convicted (including exonerees) become humanized, “people don’t feel comfortable with the system not working,” she said.

In response to a question from The City Sentinel, asking for suggestions on how average citizens can work most effectively to oppose executions, Potkin reflected, ”Get active. Stay active. Don’t stop.” She encouraged reporters in attendance to “Keep writing about the story.” In these times, “There are so many platforms, different mediums to get the message out there.”

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.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections later announced that the wrong drug had also been used in the January 2015 execution of Charles Warner during which he said, “My body is on fire.”

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.

Until the new protocol is in place, the moratorium on executions in Oklahoma will continue.

Board member Leslie Fitzhugh and longtime Julius Jones friend and Rose State College Adjunct professor Jimmy Lawson read the 26 names of those executed since the last OK-CADP dinner as well as the names of the ten exonerees from Oklahoma’s death row.

During the business meeting portion of the program, OK-CADP elected seven at-large board members: Wende Battle, Margaret Cox, Leslie Fitzhugh, Kelley Garrett, Nykkia Harris, Dr. Elizabeth Overman and Dr. Gilbert Parks.  Heath discussed the group’s annual report and Margie Roetker, OK-CADP treasurer, discussed the financial report saying, “We spent more money than we took in last year,” …as she asked for donations to help the organization continue “our important work of abolishing the death penalty.”

Board member and attorney Rex Friend made an eloquent plea to those attending to support the Bob Lemon Capitol Defense Attorney Scholarship Fund, founded by former supervisor of the Federal Public Defenders Capitol Habeas Unit, Randy Bauman, Jim Rowan, and former OK-CADP chair Lydia Polley. The 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 to help those facing the death penalty.

That evening, Cece Jones-Davis, founder of Sing for Change, Inc., and tireless advocate for Julius Jones, received the Phil Wahl Abolitionist of the Year Award.  There to witness the moment was her husband Mike, along with her mother, Sharon Graves, her aunt Karen Medley, and her twin sister LeLe Jones.  The three traveled from the east coast for the ceremony.

“This is better than the Oscars,” Cece exclaimed. “I could not be more honored to receive this award. It is such a huge acknowledgement and my family is so proud. I am very grateful.”

Randy Bauman presented the 2019 OK-CADP Opio Toure Courageous Advocate award to 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.

“Opio Toure left us way too soon, but his legacy endures,” Baich said. “He went to the state legislature to try to make life better for other people, especially the downtrodden and the underdog. He spoke for those that did not have a platform to speak for themselves. His efforts on behalf of imprisoned people were heroic.

“It is important for each of us to bear witness,” Baich continued. “Whether we watch capital trials, befriend a death row prisoner; speak to neighbors or legislators, hold prosecutors accountable, or witness executions. We must tell our stories, even if we tell it to one person at a time. Because we know that most of those who have the strongest feelings in favor of the death penalty are those who know the least about it. We must take steps toward change.

“It is our hope that we can have a fair and honest debate in Oklahoma on whether the death penalty is sound public policy, or a relic from our past that should be abandoned,” Baich added. “We hope that our leaders in the legislature will take serious strides to begin the discussion and to safeguard human rights.”

The OK-CADP Lifetime Abolitionist Award was 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.  Longtime friend and former OK-CADP board member Becky VanPool presented the award to Jim’s wife, Sherry Rowan.

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.

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.

In accepting the award for her late husband, Sherry said her husband “would be elated and humbled” to receive the award from OK-CADP, a group he loved. “Jim believed the death penalty is inherently wrong and has no place in system of law.” He believed in “The absolute value of every person.” 

She encouraged attendees to work on Jim’s behalf and in his memory, to end executions in the state of Oklahoma.

The invocation was delivered by Rev. Diana Davies of First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City and the benediction was given by Father Tim Luschen of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church.

Sponsors for the event include First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City; St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church; The Peace House; The City Sentinel; Dale Baich; James Rowan Memorial (Sherry Rowan); Jim Rowan Memorial (Oklahoma County Public Defenders Office); Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association; Friends & Friends of Friends (Quakers); Edmond Trinity Christian Church; University of Central Oklahoma – Pi Alpha Alpha, Global Honor Society for Public Affairs & Administration; the OK Innocence Project and numerous individuals.

OK-CADP honored Oklahoma County Public Defender and longtime board member Jim Rowan with the Lifetime Abolitionist award. Sherry Rowan (left) accepted the award from former OK-CADP board member Becky VanPool. Photo by Darla Shelden

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