OKLAHOMA CITY – There weren’t any famous people in John Marion Grant’s corner in the hours leading up to his execution last month. Few Americans would likely have known his name if he wasn’t the first inmate to be executed in Oklahoma in nearly seven years.
Meanwhile, an organized public relations team, a prime-time documentary, and a host of celebrities including reality star Kim Kardashian, NFL quarterback Baker Mayfield, and NBA star Russell Westbrook, Julius Jones – the next dying inmate – have arguably become a well-known Name made.
An online campaign calling on the state to stop the execution of Jones on November 18 had garnered more than 6.4 million signatures.
A separate high profile PR campaign is also being conducted on behalf of death row inmate Richard Glossip. Sister Helen Prejean, one of the most prominent nuns in the country and author of the book Dead Man Walking, is his advocate and spiritual advisor. She only handles a handful of cases but was convinced of his innocence after he wrote to her. Dr. Phil McGraw also recently presented Glossip’s case.
In comparison, the proposed execution of Bigler Stouffer II, scheduled for December 9, has received little public outrage. Only 4,119 people have signed an online petition trying to stop his execution, despite a less vocal group of supporters claiming there is evidence of Stouffer’s innocence in the fatal shooting of a popular school teacher decades ago.
“I think just as the system is arbitrary in deciding who gets to death row in the first place, it is also somewhat arbitrary in deciding which cases get attention,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “You will certainly only be noticed when someone has a good lawyer and something jumps off the page as very bad.”
Dunham said that as a lawyer he represented innocent people who did not get nearly as much attention as other inmates. He represented Harold Wilson, who was sentenced to death for triple murders in a crack house in Pennsylvania. Wilson was later exonerated.
He said celebrities took up Glossip and Jones’ concerns because they are “so extraordinary” and there is strong evidence of innocence. He also said the problem of celebrity involvement isn’t unique to Oklahoma. Celebrities have spoken out on death penalty cases in other states as well.
“If these things are to become so known, there has to be a central core of truth that draws so many people,” said Dunham. “And then there has to be some part of this case that is sensational in one way or another. I don’t think it can be said that these cases don’t deserve a huge following. I think it can be said that there are many other cases that also deserve a large following but never get. “
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said he doesn’t believe celebrity support or access to a good public relations team should affect the outcome of the legal process.
“The fact that one inmate has a PR machine and another has a PR machine doesn’t affect my office at all,” he said. “It shouldn’t be … Every case involving the death penalty has been examined very carefully by the -peals court. When it arrives at our office, we are very confident that the inmate is guilty of the charges and that it was horrific. “
A total of 45 people are on Oklahoma’s death row and 30 have exhausted all -peals, O’Connor said.
Griffin Hardy, a Prejean spokesman, said no case is more important than the other.
“It’s just that sometimes factors come together that, when it all comes together, is the kind of case that pops into the public consciousness,” he said.
Hardy also said there may be common denominators and societal concerns that attract broader coalitions of people to the inmates’ concerns, such as evidence that racism played a role in the outcome or evidence of innocence.
Glossip was convicted twice in 1997 for the murder of Oklahoma City motel owner Barry Van Treese. Convicted hit man Justin Sneed has been sentenced to life in prison without parole. Protesting his innocence, Glossip said Sneed acted alone and then pointed out to him to avoid the death penalty.
“I feel like I’ve worked on many of these cases firsthand that high-profile people who get involved are often very helpful in attracting public attention and support,” said Hardy. “But public pressure doesn’t really win the case. In the end, these are still judicial proceedings, legal matters. “
Hardy said while public pressure can play a role in sh -ing the outcome, no court, governor, or pardon committee will commute a sentence just because a million people called.
“You have to have an actual legal reason,” Hardy said. “So the attention helps, but what really is key is having a good team of lawyers who can dig into the facts, come up with arguments that can give decision-makers the reasons they need to make the right decision. ”
In the case of Julius Jones, supporters say hundreds of thousands of heads of state convinced of his true innocence have called on him to commute his sentence, grant pardon or suspend his execution.
Jones was convicted of first degree murder in the car theft death of 45-year-old insurance manager Paul Howell in 1999. Howell was robbed and shot in the head in the driveway of his childhood home in Edmond. Authorities said they later found the murder we -on in a red bandana in the attic above the ceiling in Jones’ closet. Authorities said the killer wore a red bandana.
Jones has protested his innocence.
Kelli Masters, who describes herself as a lawyer, said she knew nothing about Jones’ case until someone on his public relations team got in touch 18 months ago asking her to write a letter to Governor Kevin Stitt on Jones’s behalf.
Oklahoma City Masters, who is a sports agent, never stood up for an inmate and refused to weigh herself until she read the transcripts, -peals, and reviewing the evidence. She also felt compelled to meet Jones on death row twice.
“I knew in my heart that if I knew that I was really going to step out and fight for him, I would have to speak to him face to face and make my own decision that satisfied me,” said Masters.
She said she was impressed with Jones’ candor that bad choices as a teenager put him in a position where he could be convicted of murder. She also said that he was unaware that he had become a household name.
Masters, who said she was not an advocate of the death penalty, said Jones’ cause has received a lot of widespread support from the Christian community, the Conservative community and Oklahomas who believe it is “very, very compelling”.
“I don’t know about all the celebrity endorsements and the attention and all that,” she said. “I think in a way I’m grateful because otherwise I might not have heard of it.”
Claremore Progress’ news editor Chelsea Weeks contributed to this report.