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KEVIN HARVISON | Staff file photo

OKLAHOMA CITY — There were no famous people in John Marion Grant’s corner in the hours before his execution last month. Few Americans would have likely known his name but for the fact that he was the first inmate to be executed in Oklahoma in nearly seven years.

Meanwhile, an organized public relations team, a prime time documentary and a host of celebrities including reality star Kim Kardashian, NFL quarterback Baker Mayfield, and NBA star Russell Westbrook, have arguably made Julius Jones — the next inmate slated to die — a household name.

An online campaign calling on the state to halt Jones’ Nov. 18 execution had garnered more than 6.4 million signatures.

A separate high-profile public relations campaign is also being waged on behalf of death row inmate Richard Glossip. Sister Helen Prejean, one of the nation’s most high-profile nuns and author of the book “Dead Man Walking,” is his advocate and spiritual adviser. She only takes on a handful of cases, but became convinced of his innocence after he wrote to her. Dr. Phil McGraw also recently featured Glossip’s case.

In comparison, the planned execution of Bigler Stouffer II, scheduled Dec. 9, has received little public outcry. Only 4,119 people have signed onto an online petition trying to halt his execution despite claims from a less vocal group of supporters that there’s evidence pointing toward Stouffer’s innocence in the fatal shooting of a popular school teacher decades ago.

“I think just as the system is arbitrary in determining who gets to death row in the first place, it is somewhat arbitrary in determining which cases get attention,” said Robert Dunham, executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center. “They certainly don’t get attention until someone has a good lawyer and something leaps off the page as being very badly wrong.”

Dunham said that when he was practicing law he represented innocent people who didn’t get anything close to the level of attention that other inmates do. He represented Harold Wilson, who was convicted and sentenced to death for a triple murder in a Pennsylvania crack house. Wilson was later exonerated.

He said celebrities have taken up Glossip’s and Jones’ causes because they’re “so exceptional” and there’s strong evidence of innocence. He also said the issue of celebrity involvement is not unique to Oklahoma. Celebrities have also weighed in on death penalty cases in other states.

“Certainly when these things become this high profile, there has to be a central core of truth that attracts so many people to it,” Dunham said. “And then there has to be some part of this case that is sensational in some way or another. I don’t think you can say that these cases are not deserving of large followings. I think you can say that there are a lot of other cases that are deserving of large followings, too, but never get them.”

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said he doesn’t think celebrity support or access to a good public relations team should shape the outcome of the judicial process.

“The fact that one inmate has a PR machine and another one doesn’t does not affect my office at all,” he said. “Nor should it … Every case, if it’s going to get to this point in terms of capital punishment, has been reviewed very thoroughly by the court of criminal appeals. By the time it gets to our office, we feel very confident that the inmate is guilty of the charge and that it was heinous.”

In all, 45 people are on Oklahoma’s death row, and 30 have exhausted all appeals, O’Connor said.

Griffin Hardy, a Prejean spokesman, said no case is more important than another.

“It’s just that sometimes there’s a confluence of factors that when everything comes together, it’s the type of case that breaks into the public consciousness,” he said.

Hardy also said there can be common denominators and societal concerns that attract wider coalitions of people to inmates’ causes, such as evidence that racism played a role in the outcome, or evidence of innocence.

Glossip was twice convicted in the 1997 murder-for-hire of Oklahoma City motel owner Barry Van Treese. The convicted hit man, Justin Sneed, was sentenced to life without parole. Glossip maintains his innocence and said Sneed acted alone and then pointed to him to avoid the death penalty.

“The sense that I have from having worked on a lot of these cases firsthand is that a lot of times high-profile people getting involved is really helpful in garnering public attention and public support,” Hardy said. “But public pressure doesn’t actually win the case. These are, at the end of the day, still legal proceedings, legal matters.”

Hardy said while public pressure may play a role in shaping the outcome, no court, governor or pardon and parole board is going to commute a sentence simply because a million people called.

“They need to have an actual legally justified reason to do it,” Hardy said. “And so the attention helps, but what really is the keystone of it all is having a good legal team who can investigate the facts, who can make the arguments, who can give the decision makers the reasons they need to reach the right decision.”

In the case of Julius Jones, supporters say that hundreds of thousands of people convinced of his actual innocence have urged state leaders to commute his sentence, grant clemency or stay his execution.

Jones was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1999 carjacking death of 45-year-old insurance executive Paul Howell. Howell was robbed and shot in the head in the driveway of his parents’ home in Edmond. Authorities said they later found the murder weapon wrapped in a red bandana in the attic above the ceiling in Jones’ closet. Authorities said the killer was wearing a red bandana.

Jones has maintained his innocence.

Kelli Masters, who describes herself as an advocate attorney, said she didn’t know about Jones’ case until someone involved with his public relations team reached out 18 months ago and asked her to write a letter to Gov. Kevin Stitt on Jones’ behalf.

Masters, of Oklahoma City, who is a sports agent, had never advocated for an inmate, and refused to weigh in until after she read the transcripts, appeals and reviewed the evidence. She also felt compelled to meet Jones twice on death row.

“I knew in my heart of hearts if I knew I was going to really step out and fight for him, I needed to talk to him face-to-face and make my own determination that satisfied me,” Masters said.

She said she was struck by Jones’ candidness that bad decisions as a teenager put him in a position where he could be convicted of murder. She also said he wasn’t aware that he had become a household name.

Masters, who said she’s not an anti-death penalty advocate, said Jones’ cause has drawn a lot of broad support from the Christian community, from the conservative community and from Oklahomans who believe it’s “very, very compelling.”

“I don’t know about all of the celebrity endorsements and the attention and all of that,” she said. “I guess in a way, I’m thankful because otherwise, I maybe wouldn’t have heard about it.”

Claremore Progress news editor Chelsea Weeks contributed to this report.

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