One year after Oklahoma death row prisoner James Fisher, with help from EJI, won reversal of his capital murder conviction and death sentence because his trial counsel’s performance failed to meet constitutional requirements, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the grant of relief and remanded Mr. Fisher’s case for a new trial.
Executive Director Bryan Stevenson testified at an evidentiary hearing in Oklahoma on March 20-21, 2008, as a expert on legal representation in death penalty cases. He testified that Mr. Fisher’s abusive trial lawyer, who had drug and alcohol problems, failed to develop an effective attorney-client relationship with Mr. Fisher and failed to investigate and present readily available evidence that probably would have changed the result of Mr. Fisher’s trial.
Mr. Fisher was convicted and sentenced to death in 1984 based almost exclusively on the testimony of a man who was initially charged with the murder. He remained on Oklahoma’s death row for 18 years before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed his conviction due to the constitutionally ineffective performance of his first trial attorney.
Mr. Fisher was tried again in 2005. The State presented no direct physical evidence linking him to the offense and relied again on the testimony of a convicted felon who had been charged with the murder. Mr. Fisher’s lawyer presented no witnesses and he was convicted of capital murder.
At the penalty phase, trial counsel presented only one witness. Counsel did not present any evidence about Mr. Fisher’s mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, and Mr. Fisher was sentenced to death.
After Mr. Fisher’s trial, his attorney was suspended from the practice of law for one year as a result of numerous client complaints and alcohol and substance abuse.
In a swift judgment in favor of Mr. Fisher, the state court found on Monday, March 24, 2008, that Mr. Fisher’s trial attorney failed to provide the effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and granted Mr. Fisher a new trial. One year later, on March 25, 2009, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals found that the record and detailed findings of the district court support its conclusions, and remanded the case for a new trial.