In a new book, Death and Justice, former Los Angeles Police Department detective Mark Fuhrman and Stephen Weeks take a look at the justice system in the state of Oklahoma, where 21 death row inmates were executed in 2001.
They find that the "frontier justice" that Oklahoma has been known for since the 1890s is alive and well, and that death row inmates are being put to death at record levels.
Here is an excerpt of their book.
Chapter One: Frontier Justice
"It's a mess down here in Oklahoma!" Jack Dempsey Pointer said in his booming good-ol'-boy voice. "We're executing people; we don't know if they're innocent or guilty. It's a regular death factory."
Pointer, president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers' Association, was a guest on my radio show for KXLY Spokane in October 2001. I told Pointer I was skeptical.
"Fuhrman, you're just saying that because you're a cop and I'm a defense lawyer. It's your job to put criminals in jail and it's my job to keep them out," Pointer said. "But if you don't believe me, then come down here and see for yourself."
So I did. At first glance, I liked Oklahoma. The landscape is flat and somewhat monotonous, but the people are friendly. They wear Wranglers and eat red meat and listen to country music and vote Republican. Instantly I felt I was among friends.
In many ways, Oklahoma is like a place lost in time. The cowboy past is more powerfully felt there than in most other places because that past is still so recent. Originally a territory for displaced Indian tribes, Oklahoma did not achieve statehood until 1907. The ethos of frontier justice has dominated Oklahoma since the 1890s, when "hanging judge" Isaac Parker sent eighty-seven men to the gallows.
On my first night in Oklahoma City, I met Jack Dempsey Pointer, a jovial, outspoken man who is so large that he can barely fit in the front seat of his Jaguar. Pointer took me to the Oyster Bar, a downtown watering hole where people on both sides of Oklahoma City law enforcement go to unwind, gossip, and sometimes even negotiate plea bargains.
Over the next few days I met defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and cops. I was taken by how friendly and open people were. Even if they didn't want to tell me anything, they would be very polite about it. After my rather chilly treatment in Greenwich, Connecticut, while investigating the murder of Martha Moxley, or Spokane, Washington, on the trail of a serial killer, Oklahoma was a pleasant surprise.
Hanging around with the folks in Oklahoma made me feel like I was back among my old LAPD colleagues. We traded stories about crime and punishment. They had a good sense of humor and weren't easily offended. Even those few who didn't want to talk to me were very gracious about it.
The attitude among most Oklahomans — not just law enforcement professionals but also waitresses, cabdrivers, and businesspeople — was basically "hang'em high." It was reassuring to hear even some defense attorneys defend the death penalty. In Oklahoma it's politically correct to support the death penalty. If you have any doubts about it, then you must be a liberal or something even worse.
Death penalty cases in Oklahoma City are prosecuted by the Oklahoma County District Attorney's Office and investigated by the Oklahoma City Police Department (OCPD). The trial defense is either private attorneys or the Oklahoma County Public Defender's Office. The Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS)is a state agency that represents defendants in jurisdictions where there is no public defender's office and handles death row appeals for those already convicted at trial. Many Oklahoma City defendants will have a public defender at their trials and OIDS lawyers during the appellate process. The OIDS office is in Norman, on the campus of the University of Oklahoma. Although many of them have worked for the Oklahoma County Public Defender's Office, OIDS lawyers are a bit removed from the Oklahoma City law enforcement scene (they don't hang out at the Oyster Bar) and are more outspoken in their criticism of the death penalty and Oklahoma's criminal justice system. They, too, were unfailingly polite, even friendly.
When I first began this project, I didn't think there was anything fundamentally wrong with the death penalty. Instead, I had the conviction that any problems with capital punishment were rare and isolated instances where mistakes, usually unintentional, had been made. I certainly didn't want to see the death penalty abolished, which I believed was the ultimate motivation for many of its critics. They didn't want the system to work, because they wanted to change it.
I knew the system wasn't perfect, but I believed that it worked. Criminals were convicted because they were guilty. And if they weren't guilty of the crime for which they had been convicted, well, they had done something else for which they should have been punished. When it came to the death penalty, I assumed that there was an even lower percentage of wrongful convictions, since capital cases were certainly held to a higher standard than other felonies, from investigation to arrest to trial to punishment.
The scandal that had brought Oklahoma to my attention, and made Jack Pointer almost burst a blood vessel on my radio show concerned a forensic chemist named Joyce Gilchrist. In 2001, the same year that the state of Oklahoma was executing inmates at an unprecedented rate, a series of high-court rulings, of ficial investigations, memos, and reports, as well as the usual chorus of outraged defense attorneys, had criticized Gilchrist for lying under oath "enhancing "the value of the evidence in her testimony and mismanaging the OCPD crime lab. Gilchrist had been a forensic chemist for more than twenty years. She had worked on more than fifteen hundred felony cases. Cops and prosecutors loved her; defense attorneys didn't.
"Joyce Gilchrist is a kick-ass expert witness, "Assistant District Attorney Richard Wintory told me. "That's why everybody is out to get her."
"Joyce Gilchrist is the most lyingest, cheatingest bitch on this earth, " said one prominent Oklahoma defense attorney …
The foregoing is excerpted from Death and Justice by Mark Fuhrman and Stephen Weeks. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022