- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - A call from death row inmate Terry Lyn Short interrupted a meeting in the office of his attorney, James Rowan.

Short wanted a promise that, after he is put to death next month, he won´t end up in a pauper´s grave in the cemetery that contains the bodies of many of those hanged, electrocuted and lethally injected at the 100-year-old Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Mr. Rowan told his 47-year-old client not to be concerned about that. “It´s not going to cost you anything, so don´t worry about it. That´s the least of your worries,” he said.

What worries Mr. Rowan and other defense attorneys is the possibility that an innocent person could be executed, now that the nation´s death-row machine is gearing up again after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection.

They point to past death sentences of men who were later exonerated, blaming ineffective lawyers, overzealous prosecutors and shoddy evidence.

“The answer is yes, it could happen,” said Mr. Rowan, who has defended more than 40 capital cases.

Since 1973, 129 people have walked off death row in 26 states after evidence proved that they were wrongfully convicted, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Florida leads all states with 22 exonerations, followed by 18 in Illinois.

Oklahoma is one of five states that have each freed eight inmates from death row. One of the Oklahoma men, Ron Williamson, spent nine years on death row and came within five days of execution before he was set free by DNA evidence. The case formed the basis of John Grisham´s best-selling “The Innocent Man.”

Oklahoma´s executioners have administered lethal injections to 86 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, trailing only Texas, with 405, and Virginia, with 98.

Nobody has ever been able to produce irrefutable proof that any innocent man was executed in recent U.S. history, but Oklahoma´s execution of Malcolm Rent Johnson has troubled many death-penalty opponents. He went to his execution proclaiming his innocence.

A star prosecution witness against Johnson, convicted of the 1981 rape and strangulation of an elderly woman, was police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, who was later fired amid charges of shoddy forensic work and misleading testimony.

“There were serious questions about his case,” said Vicki Werneke, chief of the capital post-conviction division of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System. “There was a lot of circumstantial evidence in that case, but he was executed in 2000, right before the whole issue with Joyce Gilchrist came to light.”

Attempts to contact Miss Gilchrist for comment were unsuccessful.



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