A preacher to death row inmates says he wants to end executions. Critics warn he’s only seeking fame

Sep 15, 2023, 9:17 PM

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — With just weeks left before his scheduled execution, Oklahoma death row inmate Anthony Sanchez took the unusual step of firing his attorneys and skipping a clemency hearing that many viewed as the last chance to spare his life.

Sanchez’s decision, and his relationship with an activist pastor who is a spiritual adviser to death row inmates across the country, has drawn fierce criticism from capital defense attorneys and anti-death penalty groups.

They say the Rev. Jeff Hood is turning desperate inmates against their lawyers, who are often the last line of defense in a state with one of the busiest death chambers in the country.

Hood is a death row minister associated with national anti-capital punishment organization Death Penalty Action. He says his intention is to raise the profile of inmates and draw public attention to their cases to stop executions.

Critics say Hood is in it to keep himself in the limelight and raise money for Death Penalty Action.

Sanchez, 44, is scheduled to receive a lethal injection on Thursday for the 1996 killing of 21-year-old University of Oklahoma dance student Juli Busken. The slaying went unsolved for years until DNA recovered from her clothes linked Sanchez to the crime.

Sanchez previously exhausted his state appeals and his case has wound its way through federal court.

Sanchez’s court-appointed federal attorneys who were recently removed from the case and members of a longtime advocacy group, the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, place the blame on Hood for Sanchez’s decision to forego clemency.

The Oklahoma group claims Hood has worked to drive a wedge between death row inmates and their court-appointed legal teams, sometimes offering misguided legal suggestions to the condemned inmates.

Don Heath, a minister and attorney who serves as executive director of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said his group tries to work in conjunction with defense attorneys to coordinate strategy, unlike Hood and Death Penalty Action.

“Essentially, we think they’re doing harm to the inmates,” Heath said. “I don’t try to offer inmates legal advice. On some of the cases, especially the Sanchez case, they seem to be they’re giving their legal assessment of the case.”

Randall Coyne, Sanchez’s former court-appointed attorney, is even more blunt in his assessment.

“What they’re doing is using this myth of Anthony Sanchez, an innocent man facing his death, as a publicity fundraising campaign,” Coyne said. “This is all about raising money.”

Public filings with the IRS show Death Penalty Action has significantly boosted its fundraising in recent years, bringing in nearly $425,000 in 2021, the most recent year for which its filings were available. The group received around $90,000 in 2018.

In the last week, Death Penalty Action has sent fundraising solicitations out every day, many focused on Hood’s plan to walk 120 miles (193 kilometers) from the state penitentiary in McAlester to deliver petitions to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt seeking a delay in Sanchez’s execution.

The group’s executive director, Abraham Bonowitz, earned about $76,500 in compensation in 2021, while the executive treasurer worked part-time for about $43,000.

“Nobody is getting rich here, I can tell you that,” said Bonowitz, who disputed suggestions that the group pits death row inmates against their attorneys.

“We are not in the business of trying to get in the way of attorneys,” he said. “We’re in the business of trying to get people off of death row.”

Hood’s critics also include District Court Judge Joe Heaton in the Western District of Oklahoma, who heard testimony at a hearing this summer about Hood’s activity among death row inmates.

Heaton described Hood as a “nominal spiritual adviser” who interjected himself between capital defendants and their attorneys, which Heaton said was at least partly motivated “by considerations other than the best interest of the client.”

Hood was profiled in GQ magazine after organizing a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas where five police officers were killed in 2016. He claims not to earn a salary from Death Penalty Action nor make any revenue from his podcast and YouTube channel featuring interviews with death row inmates. He also disputed the suggestion that he offers legal advice to death row inmates.

“It’s ludicrous to think that some spiritual adviser could come off of the street and say, ‘You need to get rid of your attorneys,’” Hood said. “If they were doing such a great job, then these guys wouldn’t want to get rid of them.”

Sanchez aid in a recent interview from death row that the decision to hire new attorneys was his alone.

“I did not trust the lawyers that they have representing me,” he said. “There is no trust whatsoever.”

Hood has been fiercely critical of the Oklahoma public defenders representing death row inmates, saying in a recent interview that they “seem to be good at one thing: making sure the slaughter continues.”

Emma Rolls, the chief of the capital unit at the Federal Public Defender’s office in Oklahoma City, declined to comment on Hood.

But Dale Baich, a former federal public defender who has defended Oklahoma death row inmates, said it can be detrimental for an outside group to promote legal theories out of alignment with an inmate’s legal claims.

“The lawyers know the most about the case,” Baich said. “And someone on the outside may have an observation or an idea that could end up being harmful in some way.”

Ellen Yaroshefsky, a professor of legal ethics at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University in New York, said capital defense lawyers are highly specialized experts and described Hood’s conduct as “very troubling.”

“In numerous cases, he appears to interfere between highly skilled lawyers and their clients, who are emotionally distraught, extremely vulnerable and often mentally challenged,” Yaroshefsky said. “And he appears to discourage ongoing representation.”

Oklahoma has executed more inmates per capita than any other state since the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty. The state has carried out nine executions since resuming lethal injections in October 2021 following a nearly six-year hiatus resulting from problems with executions in 2014 and 2015.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that death row inmates have a right to have a minister present with them inside the death chamber, Hood has been present for the executions earlier this year of Arthur Brown Jr. in Texas and Scott Eizember in Oklahoma.

Hood said he plans to continue advocating for death row inmates and against the death penalty.

“It’s about helping these guys accomplish agency,” he said, “and I’m not going to stop.”

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A preacher to death row inmates says he wants to end executions. Critics warn he’s only seeking fame