Saturday, November 6, 2010

Keeping Hope Alive on Oklahoma's Death Row

Death row is an inscrutable place. How does one fathom what it's like for someone sentenced there, confined to a cell 23 hours a day while legal appeals drag on year after year?

When I read the New York Times account of James Fisher's 27-year stay on Oklahoma's death row, it was initially because of the novel resolution to the case: banishment from the state.

Fisher, who is African-American, had been tried twice and convicted twice of fatally stabbing a white man in the neck with a broken wine bottle in December 1982, at age 20. Prosecutors depicted it as a case of homosexual sex-for-hire gone wrong.

Both trials were overturned by the courts, however, due to ineffective assistance of counsel. Fisher's first lawyer actively undermined his client's case at times, apparently because of anti-gay bias. The second lawyer, at Fisher's retrial in 2005, was struggling with cocaine addiction and performed no better than the first. The second lawyer even physically threatened his client, causing Fisher to stay away from his own trial.

The Sixth Amendment requires more than this, and a non-profit group called the Equal Justice Initiative took up Fisher's case to make that constitutional right a reality.

But the state of Oklahoma was not done with Fisher, and a third trial loomed. Plea negotiations yielded a new-old remedy: exile. Fisher pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was released to a re-entry program in Alabama, on the condition that he never return to Oklahoma.

This is a gripping story that continues to unfold as Fisher faces life on the outside after a generation on the inside. I-pods and MP3s instead of Walkmans are only one of the many changes he will encounter.

Thankfully, Fisher found a way to cope emotionally on death row, despite the cave-like setting in which he was continually disciplined for keeping his hands for too long on the meal-tray slot. He kept a pet mouse with him on the block, and that small tenderness helped him to keep hope alive.

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