Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A telephone call from death row interrupted a meeting in the office of attorney James Rowan.

Terry Lyn Short wanted a promise that after he is put to death next month, he won't end up in a pauper's grave on "Peckerwood Hill," a cemetery in the shadow of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary containing the bodies of many of those hanged, electrocuted and lethally injected at the hulking, 100-year-old prison.

"We're going to have a really fine cemetery," Rowan told his 47-year-old client. "It's not going to cost you anything, so don't worry about it. That's the least of your worries."

But as the nation's death-row machine gears up, Rowan and others in the defense bar have their own worries. They fear the ineffective lawyers, overzealous prosecutors and shoddy evidence that have already resulted in death row exonerations across the country could some day lead to the execution of an innocent man. "The answer is yes, it could happen," said Rowan, who has defended more than 40 capital cases.

Death row inmates freed
in Oklahoma

Eight death row inmates in Oklahoma have walked out of prison as free men after their convictions were overturned. They were acquitted or charges were dropped, according to the Death Penalty Information Center:

Charles Ray Giddens was convicted in McCurtain County of the September 1977 slaying of Idabel grocery store clerk Beulah Fay Tapley during an armed robbery. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction, saying it was based on insufficient evidence. Charges against Giddens were dropped.

Clifford Henry Bowen, convicted in Oklahoma County in 1981, was the first capital case prosecuted by District Attorney Bob Macy. Bowen was sentenced to three death sentences for the shooting deaths of three people in Oklahoma City in 1980. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit overturned his conviction in 1986, ruling prosecutors failed to disclose information to the defense. Charges were dropped.

Richard Neal Jones was convicted in Grady County in 1983 in the slaying of a B. Charles Keene, a 26-year-old Chickasha man. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Jones' trial was unfair because a prosecutor made improper comments, and a jury heard improper hearsay evidence and saw inflammatory photographs of the victim's body. He was acquitted during a second trial in 1988 in Caddo County.

Gregory R. Wilhoit was convicted in Osage County in 1987 for the stabbing death of his wife, Kathryn, in 1985. During his first trial, two state dentists said a bite mark on the woman's body matched Wilhoit, but during the appeals process, a forensic dentist said he and 10 other experts in the field determined the bite marks came from someone else. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial, citing ineffective assistance of his attorney. He was acquitted at a retrial in April 1993.

Adolph Munson was convicted in Custer County in 1985 for the kidnapping and shooting death of Clinton convenience store clerk Alma Hall in 1984. In 1993, a district judge overturned the convictions and ordered a new trial, in part because the state withheld evidence that could have exonerated Munson. He was acquitted by a Custer County jury in 1995 after spending 10 years on death row.

Robert Lee Miller Jr. was convicted in Oklahoma County in 1988 in the separate rapes and murders of two elderly women in Oklahoma City. In 1995, Miller won a new trial when DNA evidence collected from the scene matched another suspect. He was freed in 1998 after prosecutors dismissed the murder charge against him.

Ronald Keith Williamson, who came within five days of being executed, was convicted and sentenced to death in Pontotoc County in 1987 for the rape and killing of Deborah Sue Carter in Ada in 1982. After DNA collected from the crime scene matched another suspect, Williamson and a co-defendant sentenced to life in prison both were released in April 1999 when all charges were dismissed against both men.

Curtis Edward McCarty was convicted in Oklahoma County in 1986 for the killing of Pamela Kaye Willis in 1982 in Oklahoma City. A district judge ordered his release in 2007 after determining the case against him could not escape the taint of former police chemist Joyce Gilchrist and that Gilchrist acted in "bad faith" by losing and destroying evidence that could have been used to show McCarty's innocence.

Since 1973, 129 people have walked off death rows in 26 states after evidence of their wrongful convictions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A Supreme Court ruling in April in favor of the lethal injection process ended a 9-month hiatus on executions.Florida leads all states with 22 exonerations, followed by 18 in Illinois. Oklahoma is one of five states in which eight inmates have been freed from death row.

One of those 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 in a case that formed the basis of a best-selling book by John Grisham.

Oklahoma's executioners, who don hoods as they make their way to the prison's death chamber, are some of the busiest in the nation, having delivered lethal injections to 86 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, trailing only Texas (405) and Virginia (98).

Nobody has ever been able to produce irrefutable proof that an innocent man was executed in recent U.S. history, but the Oklahoma execution of Malcolm Rent Johnson has troubled many death penalty opponents.

He was put to death in January 2000 for the 1981 rape and strangulation of an elderly woman in Oklahoma City.

Police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, later fired amid allegations of shoddy forensic work and misleading testimony, was a star prosecution witness against Johnson, who went to his death proclaiming he was innocent.

"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 Gilchrist were unsuccessful, and there is no listed telephone number for her in Oklahoma City.

A current case that has raised questions involves Paris Lapriest Powell, convicted in the 1993 shooting death of 14-year-old Shauna Farrow, the unintended victim in a gang-related, drive-by shooting in Oklahoma City.

Powell, then 19, and a co-defendant, were convicted and sentenced to death based largely on the testimony of the prosecution's star witness, Derick Smith, a convicted drug dealer who has since recanted his testimony and said he lied.

Now 34, Powell is awaiting a new trial ordered by a federal judge. The state has appealed the judge's ruling.

Powell, who spends his days in the bunker-like "H-unit" of the state penitentiary with 82 other condemned inmates, has always maintained his innocence and remains hopeful that he will some day be freed from death row.

"I've never really sat back and contemplated my last meal or anything like that. I've refused to accept that," Powell said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

A 6-foot-5, barrel-chested man dressed in a prison uniform that resembles a nurse's scrubs, Powell said he spends his time reading, exercising and working on his appeal. He describes a sense of community on Oklahoma's death row, where inmates share a common goal of avoiding the nearby death chamber, where a stainless steel gurney waits in a brightly lit room for its next victim.

"You can't help but to think about it. You always know that it's there," Powell said.

"I don't prefer death at all, but if I have to die ... I'd choose old age."

The cases of both Powell and Johnson were prosecuted by the office of Bob Macy, Oklahoma County's chief prosecutor for more than two decades.

Now 78 years old and retired, Macy, known for his string ties and cowboy boots, oversaw an office that sent to death row 34 of the 86 inmates who have been put to death in Oklahoma since executions resumed in 1990.

While Macy acknowledges that forensic science has advanced greatly in recent years and that appellate courts sometimes criticized his arguments, he said he never sought the death penalty unless he was convinced the defendant was guilty.

"I have always believed the death penalty is a deterrent, and it's one reason I sought the death penalty as often as I did," he said.

"We tried at least 60 capital murder cases, and I think we got the death penalty in 54 of them," he said in a telephone interview from his ranch. "The only time you get the death penalty is when you have greatly cruel, sadistic type crime."

Terry Lyn Short's June 17th execution is the next lethal injection planned in Oklahoma. He is set to die for a firebombing that killed a Japanese exchange student, Ken Yamamoto.