Hansen: Decades on death row drive death penalty fight - Omaha.com
Published Monday, May 20, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 6:39 pm
Hansen: Decades on death row drive death penalty fight

Oklahoma is killing a man at midnight, and so as darkness falls, another man on H Block slips off his prison-issue shoes.

He sits crossed-legged in front of the open toilet in his cell. He grips a shoe in each hand. He begins.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

As far as Curtis McCarty can remember, it just happens.

Another inmate takes off his shoes, and Curtis does, too, and the drumbeat spreads up and down the hallway and through the dozens of two-man cells commonly known as death row.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

The visitors begin to arrive. The grieving family members of the victim who has been brutally murdered. State officials upholding the laws of the state of Oklahoma. News reporters bearing witness in their constitutionally protected role. And the men whose job it is to administer a lethal dose of drugs to a convicted murderer and then watch as he dies.

As the visitors wait for the clocks to strike midnight, the banging grows louder and louder until it reverberates all the way through the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. The pipes shake. The walls and the floors tremble. Louder and louder until it seems like the building might crumble. Until it seems like the world might end.


As he sits cross-legged on the floor of CC Cell, Curtis McCarty doesn't much care about the tampered evidence and the DNA testing and the FBI investigation and the committed group of lawyers. He doesn't much care that one day he will walk free outside these walls, leave the state that mistakenly convicted him and sentenced him to death, and move to Nebraska.

Innocence, guilt — they don't much matter when you are holding shoes in both hands, bringing them together up to eye level and then smashing them down on both sides of your toilet. When your entire world is this drumbeat, this furious rhythmic protest, and nothing else.


“For hours,” Curtis says. “Until my forearms bled.”


You cannot hear the banging as Curtis McCarty walks to the Creighton University podium. He is wearing a black-and-white stocking cap that covers gray hair and the look of a 50-year-old man sure he'd rather be somewhere else.

And sure enough, his girlfriend, Amy, practically had to grab him by the collar this morning, drag him from the basement of the house they share in Lincoln, and drive him to Creighton's Harper Center and this anti-death penalty event.

The day starts as you'd expect: many committed people in a room, convinced of the just nature of their cause, offering factual and moral evidence to sustain each other and prove the case. You could close your eyes and jumble the words around a little, and this could be an anti-abortion event or an anti-war event.

And then Curtis takes the stage. Quietly, he begins to tell a different story.

“We are a nation of laws, a Constitution meant to promote justice and equality before the law,” Curtis says. “I believed that. I believed the judge and the jury would enforce this law. ... I was wrong.”

And this.

“You have to understand that the (police) were frustrated. They were frustrated with how I was living my life. They were frustrated by the fact they couldn't bring any solace to the Willis family.”

And this.

“I lost my family, my country. I didn't have anything to believe in anymore.”

And this.

“Had I been asked at one time, I would have voiced support for capital punishment.”

This story is related to the rest of the event because Curtis opposes the death penalty as vehemently as anyone.

This story is different because it's his own.


He starts by explaining to the Creighton audience, in great and discomforting detail, how he hurt everyone he ever loved before he lost everything he ever had.

His parents were salt-of-the-earth, hard-working, well-meaning people who taught him right from wrong. He chose wrong.

He was a junkie at 15. A high school dropout at 16. Part of a crew that robbed an Oklahoma City gas station at gunpoint at 17. Lost in drugs and booze, friends with dealers and thieves, estranged from his mother and father, barely employed, in and out of the county jail at 18.

“Every time I found myself in the back of a police car, I promised to reform,” he says. “I kept promising this until I was 22.”

He had angered the Oklahoma City police by sitting in the back of their patrol cars too many times. He had angered homicide detectives by lying to them as they investigated another crime.

He had become somebody it was hard to feel sorry for, no matter what befell him.

“You don't walk in front of the bull's-eye and then act surprised when they shoot you with an arrow,” he says.

The third and final time Curtis saw a woman named Pamela Willis came just after Thanksgiving 1982. She, like Curtis, was into drugs. She hung with bad people, like Curtis.

They passed each other in the living room at a house party held by a mutual friend. Curtis remembers asking someone, “Who was that?”

“Just Pam.”

Days after that party, on Dec. 10, 1982, a man found Pamela Willis in the living room of that same Oklahoma City house.

She was naked. She had been raped. Strangled. Someone had stabbed her so violently that a chunk of her sternum had collapsed the knife like an accordion.

She was 18 the night she died.

Death penalty: for and against

Three arguments for

Closure: In some cases the family members of victims say capital punishment helps end a horrible chapter in their lives — a chapter that began when their loved one was killed by the person later put to death for the murder.

More accuracy now: Some pro-death penalty advocates acknowledge flaws in cases tried during the previous half-century, but say today's DNA testing makes it less likely the wrong person will be convicted.

Justice served: Death penalty proponents often argue that penalties for taking a life should include the government's ability to take the convicted murderer's life, noting that an eye for an eye is a centuries-old tradition embraced by different civilizations and different religions.

Three arguments against

Wrongfully executed: More than 300 Americans have been exonerated by DNA testing and released from prison, a quarter of them after being convicted of murder. Which raises the question “How many innocent people have been put to death?”

Cost: Anti-death penalty advocates argue that the cost of the death penalty far outweighs the cost of a life spent in prison. California, for example, spent $137 million on death penalty cases between 2007 and 2009 and didn't execute a single prisoner during that time. Florida spends an estimated $24 million on death row for every one execution it carries out.

Stop the killing: Murder is wrong, and the nation shouldn't participate in a system sanctioning the killing of murderers, those opposed to the death penalty often argue.

Sources: Nebraska Legislature, the Innocence Project, Death Penalty Information Center, Focus on the Death Penalty, University of Alaska

“Like me, she was from a good, middle-class white family, which meant she had every chance, like I did,” Curtis tells the audience. “As badly as things turned out for me, they turned out so much worse for her.”

At the crime scene, police discovered semen, hair, blood, a bloody footprint, a bloody handprint on the wall and the murder weapon: the knife that had collapsed like an accordion.

They rounded up any man who had seen Pam Willis in the days before her death — 42 in all.

Curtis was one of those men. He walked voluntarily into an Oklahoma City police station and gave up hair samples, blood samples, palm prints. He answered questions without a lawyer present, and left. As his lawyers later discovered, he was eliminated as a suspect that day.

Three years passed. Curtis kept getting high, getting into trouble, getting arrested. The hunt for Pam Willis' killer went cold. Pressure mounted on homicide detectives and on a new, tough-on-crime district attorney, and they started to re-examine the case.

They heard a rumor: Curtis had told someone he knew who killed Pam Willis.

They brought him in again, but this time they physically and psychologically abused him, Curtis says. They demanded again and again to know the name of Pam's killer.

Curtis told them over and over he didn't know. And he hadn't ever told anyone that he did. Rather, he says, he had simply repeated gossip that Pam's death was likely tied to her drug connections.

The police didn't believe him, or chose not to, and arrested him on suspicion of first-degree capital murder.

Curtis couldn't believe it, but he figured his lawyers would point out the obvious: He had no motive. His prints didn't match those on the murder weapon. He hadn't killed her, and the jury would believe that.

But Curtis didn't know Joyce Gilchrist.

In 1986, when the case came to trial, Gilchrist was an up-and-coming young forensic scientist who had so wowed police investigators with her ability to tie suspects to evidence that they had nicknamed her “Black Magic.” The year before, the Oklahoma City Police Department had named her employee of the year.

She took the stand, and everything changed. Yes, she had found Curtis' hair at the scene. Yes, the blood and semen were consistent with his. Yes, he had been there that night. Yes, yes, yes.

“By the end of the trial, the jury wouldn't look at me,” Curtis tells the audience. “They stared down at their feet.”

The guilty verdict was quickly followed by a hearing to decide whether Curtis would be imprisoned for life or put to death.

Only two people took the stand on his behalf.

His father. And his mother.

“It is one of the most shameful things that ever happened to me. My mother, silently weeping and begging them not to kill me.”

The verdict: death by lethal injection.


The inmates hate a prisoner named Fisher. They surround him in the hallway after exercise hour. They stab him with sharpened broomsticks. He falls into his cell, spilling blood all over the floor.

Curtis is given Fisher's cell, locked in before the blood on the floor dries. He watches out his tiny window as they drag Fisher, ranting and struggling, from the hospital to solitary confinement after he assaults a nurse. Curtis hears the screams as the guards beat on the psychotic prisoner.

This is Curtis McCarty's first day on death row. It is 1986. He is 22.

At first he counts the days, buoyed by the hope that someone will discover the trial's errors, and he will be set free.

But as the days turn to months, then years, the men around him are killed, one after another. Some are sadistic serial killers. Some are getaway drivers of drug robberies gone bad. Some seem mentally disabled.

Curtis reads his own court files and pores over evidence and testimony that make no sense to him. He reads the other inmates' case files — they ask him to, as soon as they realize he knows how to read.

He plays the death row version of chess, the board a piece of cardboard pulled back and forth across the floor between cells. He plays a guitar until the guards take it from him.

He joins a prison gang for protection. He feels himself slipping away.

“You can't even punch someone there. That's seen as weak. You have to stab. You become belligerent, aggressive, crazy. You lose your humanity. Everybody does. You can't stop it.”

Were you ever violent, Curtis?

“Only when I had to be,” he whispers.

In January 2001 — Curtis McCarty's 16th year on death row — Oklahoma executes six men and one woman. Seven times in one month, Curtis takes off his shoes and bangs them against his toilet.

One of those seven is Billy Ray Fox, convicted of felony murder and put to death despite his insistence that he was the getaway driver and didn't kill the three victims of a grocery store robbery turned murder.

Billy is Curtis' cellmate. His best friend.

By 2001, “I had completely come apart,” Curtis tells the audience.

He decides to end his legal appeals, decides to forget the mistakes and untruths that gnaw at him whenever he reads his case file. He decides to die for a murder he didn't commit.

And then mail arrives from his mother. There is no note inside the envelope, just a newspaper story she had clipped out.

“Gilchrist under investigation for wrongdoing,” the headline says.


At the lectern, Curtis' voice is getting louder. His voice begins to bounce off the auditorium walls. The room is completely, utterly silent. We can hear the banging now.

During Joyce Gilchrist's watch, inconclusive blood and DNA tests had somehow become positive tests. Evidence that might have exonerated murder and rape suspects disappeared.

“60 Minutes” and other national news heavy hitters did investigations showing that her success in court might be tied to something besides magic, black or otherwise.

Other forensic chemists turned against her. She was sued, booted out of professional organizations, fired. Hundreds of cases she had worked on now flap in the legal breeze.

The FBI investigated eight cases of misconduct, which led to the release of three prisoners. One man who had spent 15 years in prison for a rape that DNA testing proved he didn't commit. Another man who spent 17 years on death row for a murder that a DNA test called into question.

And Curtis McCarty, whose own DNA test, when he got one after nearly two decades, showed that his didn't match the DNA found at the crime scene.

He is released in 2007 after serving more than 21 years in prison, almost all of it on death row.

He is 44 years old.

He moves back in with his parents. He takes care of his mother, who is dying of a lung disease. He plays Barbies with his niece, who is 3, and teaches her to say “I'm going to be a nuclear physicist when I grow up.”

But he is not joyous. He is aimless. Depressed. Furious.

“My attorneys were worried about me because I was basically a recluse,” he tells the audience. “They decided to give me something to do.”

So they send him to Nebraska.

He passes the statue of Honest Abe, enters the State Capitol and walks into the rotunda. He is there in Lincoln to testify before the Legislature as it considers a bill to abolish the death penalty, and he does. But something else happens.

He turns, shakes the hand of the first person he is introduced to — and she becomes his girlfriend.

She is Amy Miller, the legal director of the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Curtis says he admires her because she fights for people no one else will fight for, and because she is friendly with people who don't agree with her politics.

He tries to treat her kindly and cheer her up when she's down. She makes sure he gets to all his speaking engagements: Curtis doesn't have a car, and his short-term memory is shot.

He has a lot of appointments these days: He speaks at small-town Nebraska high schools. Auditoriums in Lincoln and Omaha. Events in Alaska and New York City. Japan. Rome. Paris.

Not long ago, he spoke to a committee of the United Nations.

Before every speech he is terrified, sure that he will sound silly, sure that professors and diplomats and activists don't want to hear from a man like him.

And if the speech at Creighton is any indication, when he is done the professors and diplomats and activists jump out of their seats and give him a standing ovation, because he has wowed them. And maybe because clapping is the only thing they can think to do.

Curtis McCarty, one of 142 men and women who have been exonerated while on death row, shakes hands and talks to well-wishers and returns to the house he and Amy share in Lincoln.

Most of those exonerated are, like Curtis, a product of the modern era. Many are spared by DNA testing.

When Curtis is by himself, he wonders: How many people on Oklahoma's death row died before a DNA test could prove their innocence?

How many Americans just like him has the death penalty killed?

He wonders this, and it drives him.

He says he will continue to accept all invitations in the 32 states that still allow the death penalty. (Iowa abolished capital punishment 48 years ago.)

He will continue to speak in Nebraska. Last week, the most successful effort at repealing the death penalty in decades narrowly failed because of a filibuster in the Nebraska Legislature. The bill will carry over to the 2014 session.

Curtis will continue to do what he does, and the whole time he will hear the sound. It is crystal clear, and it is in surround sound, and it is turned all the way up inside his head.


For Curtis McCarty, the banging is the story. For Curtis McCarty, the banging won't ever go away.

Contact the writer: matthew.hansen@owh.com, 402-444-1064, twitter.com/redcloud_scribe

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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