In the Rearview Mirror, Oklahoma and Death Row

Published: August 10, 2010



Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Stanley Washington, an Equal Justice Initiative caseworker, served 14 years in prison.

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You can never come back, ever. If you plead guilty to that long-ago murder in Oklahoma City, you will be released from prison, where you have spent most of the last 27 years on death row. But once free, you will be banished from Oklahoma. O.K.?

O.K., said James Fisher, trading his black-and-white-striped prison top for a blue-and-white-striped dress shirt. Then, without shackles or escort, he stepped into the late afternoon of a state that once wanted him dead and now just wanted him gone.

First, though, Mr. Fisher’s lawyers and supporters thought that the end to his Hitchcockian case, a study in the cost of appalling legal representation, warranted at least dinner. So they took him to Earl’s Rib Palace for the celebratory opposite of a last meal.

With brown eyes wide behind large glasses and incarceration-gray hair cut close to the scalp, the ex-inmate dined on ribs, coleslaw, fried okra, and root beer. While he ate, a gospel singer from Georgia introduced herself, sang out a song of redemption, and handed him a $100 bill.

When dinner was over, he ordered a coffee, to go.

A trip to WalMart for the incidentals needed on the outside was aborted when word came that the district attorney expected Mr. Fisher to be already gone. His lawyers promised an early start the next day, and he went to sleep in a hotel at the city’s edge.

In the morning, his latest defense lawyer, Perry Hudson, gave him a farewell gift, a portable MP3 player. Mr. Fisher had wanted a Walkman, a hot item back when he was last free, but Mr. Hudson explained that this was better.

Then Mr. Fisher got into the passenger seat of a small red rental car that soon blended into the southward flow of Interstate 35. As the radio played hip-hop, the exhausted, exhilarated man gazed through the car window at a different country from the one he remembered.

“It looked like the society outside had become cleaner, shinier,” he said.

What Mr. Fisher, 46, remembered included this: abandoned as a small child, fobbed off to relatives, returned to an abusive father and dumped at 13 on the doorstep of the New York State child-welfare system, which cut him loose at 16. In and out of the Navy in seven months, he bobbed through the drugs and street life of the South, until he found a bus ticket to Tulsa and drifted, finally, into Oklahoma City.

There, on Dec. 12, 1982, a white man named Terry Neal was stabbed to death in his apartment with the broken neck of a wine bottle. A juvenile known to solicit on the streets was charged with the murder, but that changed when he named Mr. Fisher as the assailant. He said that Mr. Neal had picked the two of them up for sex, but that things had gone wrong.

Mr. Fisher, who is African-American, was arrested in upstate New York and returned to Oklahoma, where he pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. He faced execution if convicted, a prospect that, records show, his well-respected lawyer did little to avoid.

The lawyer, E. Melvin Porter, a civil rights advocate and the first African-American elected to the Oklahoma State Senate, later said that at the time he considered homosexuals to be “among the worst people in the world,” and Mr. Fisher to be a “very hostile client.”

Mr. Porter was shockingly ill-prepared for trial — “unwilling or unable to reveal evident holes in the state’s case,” a federal appellate court later noted, yet “remarkably successful in undermining his own client’s testimony.” He exhibited “actual doubt and hostility” about his client’s defense, the court said, and failed to present a closing argument, even though the state’s case “was hardly overwhelming.”

When the time came at sentencing to plead for mercy, the court said, Mr. Porter uttered just nine words. Four were judicial pleasantries; the remaining five formed a lame objection to the prosecution’s closing argument.

With that, James Fisher, 20, was sentenced to death.

Years passed and appeals were denied. He lived in the cave-like setting of the death-row unit, spending 23 hours a day in his cell, and was frequently relegated to one of the special disciplinary isolation cells. As his various emotional problems went largely untreated, he grew increasingly self-destructive, according to a comprehensive psychological assessment.