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October 9 2009 | UNITED STATES

Oklahoma/USA

Two men released after spending 15 years in Oklahoma's death row: unreliable witnesses against them

 
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Death Penalty Information Center

Two More Exonerations From Death Row: 137th and 138th Persons Freed in Oklahoma

Two men who were charged with murder in a 1993 drive-by shooting were released on October 2 after spending almost 15 years on Oklahoma’s death row. District Attorney David Prater dropped charges against Yancy Douglas (left),35, and Paris Powell (right), 36, after deciding the state's key witness was unreliable.  "Ethically, and on my duty, I could not proceed in this case and had to dismiss it," Prater said. Derrick Smith, a rival gang member to the defendants and the state's main witness, was one of the apparent targets in the shooting. A federal appeals court in 2006 found that Smith had received a deal from the prosecutors that was not revealed to the defense and overturned the convictions. Smith testified against Powell and Douglas in their 1997 trial, but later admitted he never saw who shot him, that he was drunk and high that night, and that he testified only because prosecutors had threatened him with more prison time.

The District Attorney added, “We all came to the opinion that without Derrick Smith, we did not have a case we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt.” Jack Fisher, Powell’s attorney, said his client has always maintained his innocence and that Powell’s release is “bittersweet. It should have happened a long time ago. It’s unfortunate that he had to spend 16 years of his life in jail. What it boils down to is they had no evidence he was guilty. The testimony that they used to convict him was false.”

 

(S. Murphy, "Two ex-death row inmates released from Oklahoma prison," Associated Press, October 5, 2009; R. Surette, "Why 2 Death Row Inmates Were Set Free," News9.com, Oct. 6, 2009).  See Innocence.

 

Douglas was the 137th inmate exonerated from death row since 1973, and Powell is the 138th, according to a list of exonerations maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center.  Ten inmates have been exonerated and freed from Oklahoma. The criteria for inclusion on the list are:

 

Defendants must have been convicted, sentenced to death and subsequently either-

a) their conviction was overturned AND

 

i) they were acquitted at re-trial or

ii) all charges were dropped

b) they were given an absolute pardon by the governor based on new evidence of innocence.

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