Former death row inmate brings message of education, not death to McPherson College

By Chris Swick
October 08, 2015

Curtis McCarty may no longer be on death row for a murder he didn't commit, but that doesn't mean he's truly free.

“I'm a convicted felon,” McCarty said during a speaking engagement at McPherson College Wednesday. “That's always on there and I'll always have to confront it.”

McCarty was wrongfully convicted in 1986 of the 1982 murder of 18-year-old Pamela Willis in Oklahoma City. He spent 19 years of his sentence on death row before an investigation found that a forensic chemist had falsified records in that case and others.

He was released and declared exonerated in 2007 thanks to the efforts of attorneys with the Innocence Project, but there is no legal recognition of that fact and he is still listed as convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. It is an issue that McCarty has to deal with frequently when he travels speaking out against the death penalty, including one such trip to Japan, where he was detained at the airport after disclosing on his passport that he had been convicted of murder.

“You think we have a strong belief in the system [in the United States]?” McCarty asked. “It's nothing compared to what it is in Japan. It's hardcore, this rigid, unyielding belief that government does no wrong. That there's absolutely no way that someone in law enforcement could make a mistake, let alone do something on purpose. And they could not that night get a grip on the word 'exoneration.' They couldn't understand it.”

McCarty was eventually cleared to leave the airport after jumping through a number of hoops, including the requisitioning of a Japanese-native English speaker from the U.S. Embassy to translate for the Japanese law enforcement officials.

He spoke at length about his case and trial, which led to his death sentence. McCarty had three different trials, each ending with a sentence of death, before an FBI investigation into the Oklahoma City Police Department revealed mass misconduct on the part of a forensic chemist, Joyce Gilchrist.

A new trial was ordered in McCarty's case, with newly considered DNA evidence from the time showing there was no way he could have committed the crime.

McCarty spends his time now speaking out against the death penalty and for rehabilitation services that aim to prevent crimes before they start. He feels the death penalty conversation is shaped a lot by what people see on television.

“The only thing that we talk about is punishment,” McCarty said. “We never hear a discussion on prevention. And I know most people don't want to hear that, especially when they are hearing the details of a particularly heinous crime. Where some man has lost any sense of decency he has and his sanity and has committed some terrible deed.”

That has led to people believing, McCarty says, that watching the criminal who committed such a heinous crime die through the death penalty will bring some sense of satisfaction or a reprieve from guilt.

Not so.

“People presume to know what [Willis'] family wants,” McCarty said. “That they want the man executed who killed their daughter. I don't think that's true. I think in their hearts what they want more than anything is that their daughter hadn't been killed to begin with.

“That being true, if we're going to act on behalf of the victims of crime, then I think we have an obligation to do it intelligently. And that means preventing their deaths to begin with.”