By Leila Katibah and Mansour Taleb
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals late last week announced the execution dates of six men, including individuals with claims of innocence, mental illness and severe trauma.
All six of the individuals scheduled to be executed were among some of the 21 plaintiffs in Glossip v. Chandler that challenged the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s execution protocols for lethal injections in 2014, citing the court as violating the 14th and 15th Amendments because of the drowning and burning sensations the lethal drugs cause.
Following several botched executions by lethal injection, a moratorium was imposed on executions in Oklahoma, from October 2015 to 2021. In June 2022, Oklahoma the OK Attorney General requested the Court of Appeals to schedule execution dates for the inmates who were plaintiffs in Glossip v. Chandler.
James Coddington will be the first defendant to be executed, on Aug. 25. Coddington received the death penalty after bludgeoning a coworker with a hammer. His attorney, Emma Rolls, describes him as the embodiment of “the principle of redemption” and “the most deeply and sincerely remorseful client I have ever represented.”
The second inmate scheduled to be executed, Richard Eugene Glossip, received a death sentence following an unusual case in which another man, Justin Sneed, confessed that Glossip instructed him to commit the murder.
Glossip maintains his innocence, as he was convicted and sentenced to the death penalty almost entirely based on the testimony of Sneed, who Glossip’s attorney claims was a methamphetamine addict at the time and was coerced by law enforcement. Glossip is scheduled to be executed on Sept. 22.
Benjamin Cole is scheduled to be executed on Oct. 20. He received the death penalty for killing his infant daughter by breaking her spine. His attorneys maintain that Cole is not competent for execution and did not intend to harm his daughter, as he was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia with catatonia, coupled with a large brain lesion.
Scheduled to be executed on Nov. 17, Richard Fairchild received the death penalty following 26 counts of abuse against a three-year-old child, eventually resulting in his death by beating.
Fairchild was raised in an abusive home plagued with alcoholism and substance abuse and suffered repeated head trauma from amateur boxing as a teenager. He now suffers from psychosis. Evidence of organic brain damage, however, was not presented to the jury by his attorneys at trial, who instead told the jury that his behavior was because he was a “mean drunk.”
While his co-defendant Victor Miller was able to avoid the death penalty, John Hanson is scheduled to be executed on Dec. 15. Hanson suffers from major mental illnesses, brain damage and autism. Victor Miller has a long criminal history and was the ringleader of the crime, often manipulating Hanson and taking advantage of his disabilities, according to Hanson’s attorneys.
Defense attorneys claim the cases of 25 men, including these six, demonstrate the injustice within Oklahoma’s capital punishment system, highlighting prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias, and arbitrariness.
In 2017, the independent, bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission issued a 300-page report describing the problems within Oklahoma’s death penalty system. They recommended the moratorium on executions continue until “significant reforms are accomplished.”
Recommended reforms included reducing the potential for wrongful convictions, strengthening judicial review, increasing the reliability of forensic evidence, reducing racial bias, improving clemency processes, improving prosecutors’ adherence to their ethical and legal obligations, increasing the fairness of capital juries, and ensuring procedural mechanisms for the correction of constitutional errors.
Despite the moratorium on executions in Oklahoma being lifted in 2021, the State has adopted none of the reforms suggested by the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission.
According to medical records, records revealed that many of the accused also suffered from “Brain Damage.”
Death penalty studies have demonstrated that the death penalty is “disproportionately” imposed on those with mental illness.
According to medical reports for the 25 men, the majority have been diagnosed with “serious mental illness,” including “schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unspecified psychotic disorders, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, major depression, anxiety, and autism spectrum disorders.”
According to the same records, eight of these individuals (Coddington, Cole, Cuesta-Rodriguez, Fairchild, Grissom, Hanson, Littlejohn, and Mitchell) were diagnosed with brain damage. Reports show that most of these men’s juries “heard little or no evidence about the extent of their mental impairments at trial.”
Evidence also shows that Cole and Lay are so debilitated by psychosis and other symptoms of mental illness that they “lack any rational understanding of why the State seeks to execute them.” According to California law, their condition should render them “legally incompetent” to be executed.
One of the men, Wade Lay, has a competency hearing scheduled in 2023. However, court records show the Attorney General nevertheless plans an execution date for him. According to advocates who worked with survivors of childhood trauma, they have learned that “what did you do” is all too often a question that must go hand in hand with “what happened to you.”
Indeed, defense attorneys argue research shows childhood trauma can lead to “increased impulsivity” and result in “serious mental illness,” such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Complex PTSD, and can exacerbate the symptoms of other mental illnesses. Childhood trauma damages both mental and physical health in other serious ways.
According to the defense teams, the 25 men for whom Oklahoma is seeking execution dates were once “little boys subjected to extreme and ongoing maltreatment at the hands of their parents or other trusted caretakers.” They were raised in “unimaginably harsh conditions of abuse, neglect, and deprivation.”
Evidence also showed that the majority of these men grew up in “abject poverty” described as “overcrowded and violent households and neighborhoods.”
Several were born to “teenage mothers,” and were the children of “addicts and/or alcoholics.” Thus, evidence suggested that “the early loss of a parent created or worsened instability and violence in the home.”
According to reports, the 25 men all experienced “physical and emotional abuse.” It also proved that nearly half of them (Cole, Cuesta-Rodriguez, Goode, Grissom, Hancock, Harmon, Mitchell, Rojem, Ryder, Simpson, Smith, Underwood) “are known or believed to have been sexually abused” as well. Reportedly, many of them fell into “substance abuse” as a result of “intergenerational vulnerabilities.”
Reports even indicated that some of them began using “drugs and alcohol” as young as age eight or nine to escape from the “relentless violence” inflicted on them.
A state with a Black population of just 7.8 percent, according to Census records, shows 40 percent of the men for whom Oklahoma is seeking execution dates are Black (Cannon, Goode, Hanson, Harmon, Johnson, Littlejohn, Mitchell, Simpson, Smith, Wood). Two of these men (Goode, Michell) are mixed-race, both Black and Native American.
Although only 10 percent of Tulsa County is Black, according to Census, four of the five men sentenced to death in Tulsa County and now scheduled for execution are Black. Census records suggest that half of those scheduled for execution who was convicted in Oklahoma County (6/12) are Black, though that county’s Black population is only 15 percent.
Moreover, seven of the 10 Black men scheduled for execution (Cannon, Harmon, Littlejohn, Mitchell, Smith, Simpson, Wood) were reported “25 or younger at the time of their crime, including three who were 18 (Mitchell), 19 (Smith), or 20 (Littlejohn).
Evidence confirmed Alfred Mitchell was just “two weeks past his eighteenth birthday” which according to California law, will be barely old enough to be exposed to a death sentence. In contrast, records showed, that “only one of the white men with execution dates (Coddington) was 25 or younger at the time of the crime.”
The same records suggested a racially disparate application of capital punishment to young men.
According to court reports, prosecutors used racially charged language in closing arguments, including portraying the crimes as “gang-related” contrary to the evidence. (Smith, Simpson). According to news sources, Wood was tried before a judge known to be “overtly racist.”
Indeed, referring to another’s case (Hanson), the trial judge expressed concern that “racial bias played a role in his death sentence.”
Also, the case of Goode involving a “corrupt police officer” proved to have “planted evidence against Black defendants in other cases,” according to reports. The officer served federal prison time as a result of his misconduct.
According to Oklahoma Crime Statistics, notably, 68 percent of the execution cases (17/25) involve white victims, although white victims typically account for around 56 percent of homicide victims in Oklahoma each year.
According to court reports Cole, Goode, Glossip, Grissom, Hanson, Harmon, Lay, Littlejohn, Simpson, and Wood had “co-defendants” who were more “culpable or shared culpability,’ but were never sentenced to death.
In the cases of Littlejohn and Wood, defense lawyers said prosecutors made “inconsistent arguments” at the separate trials of both the defendant and co-defendant, claiming that “each one was the actual killer.’
According to court records, prosecutors in some of these cases withheld or have “lost” evidence that could have significantly impacted witnesses’ credibility or supported important defenses such as innocence or self-defense. Specifically, Glossip, Goode, Hancock, Hanson, Roger, Simpson.
Records also pointed to the fact that some of these cases also involve the use of “misleading or otherwise problematic forensic evidence,” including cases involving disgraced Oklahoma City police chemist Joyce Gilchrist (Mitchell, Rojem).
Evidence presented showed the 25 prisoners had praiseworthy claims that their conviction or death sentence is “unconstitutional.” However, according to the law, no legal mechanism is available for them to pursue relief.
Jemaine Cannon was reportedly represented on appeal by a lawyer with a “conflict of interest.” The courts acknowledged the conflict but ruled that he “did not raise this claim properly when he was representing himself pro se.”
Records also show Richard Fairchild’s trial lawyer presented no mitigation case on his behalf, despite the availability of extensive evidence of his severe mental illness and extremely traumatic childhood.
The federal appellate court agreed that he received ineffective assistance of counsel but deemed the claim “waived” because Fairchild’s original appellate lawyer failed to raise it.