Dead man walking

The death penalty is always an issue that provokes debate. But questions its worth after speaking to a man exonerated after 19 years on death row

Inside an American prison. Photo credit: Jake Bernard

Inside an American prison. Photo credit: Jake Bernard

In 1985, Curtis McCarty was arrested and charged with first degree capital murder. 22 years later, after spending 19 years on death row and being sentenced to death three times, he was exonerated. This is his story.

Pamela Willis, 18, had been stabbed, raped, and strangled in 1982 and McCarty became one of 42 male suspects in the hunt for her killer. By 1983, all suspects were released, but 1985 saw homicide detectives bringing McCarty back, at the age of 22, after hearing a rumour that he was concealing the perpetrator’s identity. He had only ever seen Willis twice. McCarty bitterly recalls how evidence had previously been collected and verified to “eliminate all 42 young men, including me. It wasn’t me. And they knew it.”

“They told me that if I was not forthcoming they would charge me with murder – and I didn’t have the information they wanted. It was that simple. I didn’t know anything about the crime, so the next thing I know, I was on trial for first degree murder.”

McCarty’s trial in 1986 lasted two weeks, but he “was poor and there was simply no way to combat the testimony that was given against me.” The case was principally reliant on Joyce Gilchrist, a scientist working at the Oklahoma City forensics department. However, between 1983 and 1985, Gilchrist had altered her notes concerning DNA evidence and accused McCarty of homicide. “Gilchrist made a very good witness for the stand because she was eloquent and educated – and was lying. She said it was me, and that was the end of it.” McCarty was found guilty and sentenced to fatal imprisonment on death row.

“I found out the hard way that the American criminal justice system isn’t all it’s reported to be. You can’t just stand there in a court of law before a jury and say, ‘they’re lying!’ Most people believe that the government is perfect, that they don’t make mistakes, and they certainly don’t frame people, because ‘by God, this is America’, and we’re the best in the world and all that shit. And people just don’t know, I didn’t know, I had no idea that such a thing could happen.” Without any physical evidence to prove his innocence, “it was my word against theirs”. McCarty has every reason to sound exhausted as he recollects the next 21 years of struggle in his life: “it was an absolute nightmare. I saw all my friends die. All the deprecations and the brutality; everything you hear about that is true. And I had to live like that all of my adult life.”

McCarty was imprisoned for 19 of his 21 years’ incarceration on death row in Oklahoma. “The most frightening thing I encountered was not violence, or the fact my government had lied to me: when I got down there, I saw nothing but young men – just kids. I lived by a serial killer for a number of years, and other men who were just callous and insane. They were just gone. They had lost their sanity, their humanity, and committed some terrible crimes. All the others were just kids; stupid young men who made very terrible decisions which led ultimately to somebody’s death.”

Most people believe the government is perfect, that they dont make mistakes, and they certainly don’t frame people

While describing living on death row as “a violent and brutal way to have to live your life. It was a terrible existence for a long time”, this wasn’t the worst part of McCarty’s experience. “They stuck us underground, isolated, and made it that much harder.” In 1991, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary opened the existing facility, ‘H-Unit’. Under maximum security, the Unit was constructed underground to house 400 death row inmates, alongside the state’s lethal injection chamber. Prisoners share a cell between two and receive three meals a day to be eaten within.

H-Unit inmates are locked down for 23 hours per day, with minimal access to natural lighting. “You couldn’t even come out of that cage for anything. They let you out for 45 minutes or so, (they say it’s an hour, but that’s not true) but you don’t even leave the Unit, it’s just a larger cell.” Three times per week, prisoners are permitted 15 minutes to shower or see their lawyer, but aren’t allowed family contact visits or to see staff – “if you’re not all shackled up in chains and cuffs all over you.

“Other than that, you were stuck in that cage all day long, with nothing to do and no one to talk to. It’s a hopeless situation. I tried to continue education; I studied law as best I could. The monotony would make you crazy – I watched grown men lose their minds with nothing to do and no human contact. A lot of guys couldn’t handle it, it broke them down psychologically.”

In July 2002, negative DNA test results factually proved McCarty’s innocence. Yet he was left waiting on death row for five more years, while officials tried to argue against their own results. At a court hearing last month, the authorities still referred to his exoneration as a ‘technicality’, maintaining that he was guilty. Since 1973 there have been over 130 exonerations from death row in United States, but more than 92 people have been killed by the death penalty in Oklahoma alone, since 1976.

McCarty firmly believes that many of the inmates held on death row are also innocent, but blames several cases on the existence of the felony murder rule. The law states that if, for example, two people decide to rob a shop purely for the money, with a weapon in hand but no intention to harm anyone, and a civilian in the shop dies in the process, even if of an unrelated heart attack, the robbers have committed a felony classed as murder. If someone were waiting in a get-away car, they would also be charged with manslaughter.

The notorious ‘H-Unit’. Photo credit: Jake Bernard

McCarty is keen to emphasise the need for clearer definitions of law. “It happens all the damn time in this country. The public do not know that the felony murder rule exists. A good portion of the men who I was down there with on death row were there for that kind of shit. And yet the government was telling everyone that these were heinous killers who have forfeited their right to live. But they didn’t kill anybody.” During the course of our conversation, it transpires that McCarty has reason to feel so strongly about the felony murder rule. He shared a cell on death row for 11 years with Billy Fox, who was convicted at the age of 19 after the robbery of a newsagents’ resulted in an armed struggle and the death of three employees. Although the robbery was his idea, Fox did not fire any shots. But “to this day the State of Oklahoma will tell you he’s the worst of the worst and he deserved to die.He never held a gun, he never pointed anything at anybody, they never even saw him.

“It haunted him ‘til the day he died. He never got over it. He didn’t go there with any intentions to hurt anybody, he didn’t participate in any of it, it wasn’t deliberate. That wasn’t his purpose at all – he didn’t have a mean bone in his body.” The responsibility for the three deaths was ultimately placed on Fox, which McCarty believes “destroyed” him. McCarty remembers Fox’s words: “‘I had absolutely no idea something like that could happen. I was struggling with cocaine and I just thought we’d go down there like you see in the movies. It never occurred to me somebody could get hurt. Billy was labelled a murderer, and the State of Oklahoma came and took him from my life. They strapped him to a table and they killed him, and cried ‘murderer’ while they were doing it, and they were lying. And I’ll never forgive them for it. Ever. Fuck them.”

The death of McCarty’s best friend in 2001 is a subject of mixed emotions. Despite the fury and resentment that he feels, most inmates are put in isolation for 30 days before their death – but due to his high standard of conduct, Fox was not. “That was the only thing they did that seemed to have some sort of compassion or humanity. I was able to stay with him right up until the very end.” McCarty describes that day, almost a decade ago, as the worst of his life. His voice fades at the painful memory of his last words to Fox. “I told him the only thing you can tell somebody. I just told him I loved him, and that he was my friend.”

McCarty considers the American population to be largely disillusioned about the death penalty. “I don’t think it’s the fault of most people – you have to believe in something. We are conditioned and indoctrinated from the time we go to kindergarten – ‘we’re number one and here’s why’. The government can stand up and say anything it wants to say; it’s not required to demonstrate any kind of validity or verity in their claims. Because of the jurors’ belief that they live in a country that has a perfect court system, they just simply could not come to terms with the fact that they were being lied to.

“I went to the law library when I first got there [prison], and it only made me more depressed. Once they get you, you stay got. It’s almost impossible to get out of prison in America once you’ve been convicted.” Years later, it was revealed that the true criminal had left a bloody footprint on Willis’ leg, dropped his car keys at the scene, and left a full set of fingerprints on the window he broke into. But all of that information was withheld during trials, although several homicide detectives and prosecutors knew the truth.

Pamela Willis’ true murderer has not been caught because state authorities are not searching. In McCarty’s opinion, “they’re never going to when you understand that mindset, you understand why they did what they did to me. They said to themselves, ‘We think you know who killed her, and that you’re not telling and you’re a part of it. And in America, boy, you’re gone. Felony murder rule will send your punk ass to death row.’” State law entitles anyone leaving the Oklahoma penal system $50 and a bus ticket to travel home. McCarty was refused those minimal provisions when he was finally released. “I was incarcerated for 22 years and they wouldn’t give me my bus ticket. I haven’t received an apology and never will. I’ll never receive a dime.”

McCarty says that trying not to lose hope whilst on death row probably sounds odd, but the process of watching his neighbours die one after one caused him to lose faith. “If we were all basically good, then there would be no death rows, no false charges in court and there would be somebody to turn to for help. And there isn’t. I deluded myself for a long time.” McCarty never turned to religion, explaining that for many prisoners it was less than comforting. “In some ways it made their agony all the worse. It pushed them over the edge; they couldn’t reconcile their faith with their condition. If what they believed was true, they wouldn’t be suffering what they were suffering.”

Throughout dozens of court hearings, seeing the victim’s family sat in the same room as his own, McCarty “began to think about other people and not myself ”. Drawing strong comparisons between Willis’ mother and his own, “it was a long time before I realised they weren’t the same. While both had lost their children, at least mine had hope that some day that I would come home. Pam’s didn’t. She never had that.”

Today, McCarty associates predominantly with those involved in‘Journey of Hope’, a non-profit organisation led by families of murder victims and death row inmates alike to educate the public about the death penalty. He describes them as inspiring, and a reminder of a very important lesson he has learnt: empathy. In the three years since his release, McCarty has had to evaluate losing a substantial period of his life. “Of course I’m bitter about it. I’m so angry about it. There are some days I don’t know what to do with myself. I just wake up everyday and try to smile and do something positive, for my community, or country, or civil justice movement. At the end of the day, I tally it up – I’m still alive, I haven’t done anything negative.”

His falsely tarnished record within the social security database will still not allow McCarty absolute freedom. Employment is a complete impossibility as “there’s nothing you can say to anybody to give absolute satisfaction or proof,” he explains. “Everything about me screams ‘convict’. Who I am and this huge gap in my life. There’s no way I can’t confront it.”

When speaking at universities about the death penalty, McCarty finds that people are generally fascinated about his life. “Despite my best efforts to be positive and to get my butt out of the bed everyday, and try to have something of a normal existence, I can’t escape what happened. It defines who I am – it’s all there is about me that anybody can see. I don’t like doing this at all and having to revisit that shit, but I don’t have anything else positive I can contribute to society.” It is startlingly clear how grounded McCarty is, despite the unfathomable injustices that have unfolded throughout the chapters of his adult life, and those which he still encounters today.

“We have to stand up as people and say we do not torture, kill, lie in court, discriminate, or abuse. We are good and honest people. You have to start with those basic principles. You’ve got to have integrity. It simply does not matter what those people do – it’s not about who they are, it’s about who you are.”


  1. Excellent article – succinctly underlining the fundamental reason why no nation that hopes to call itself civilised can have the death penalty.

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  2. Interesting article, but not the full picture. Its hilarious that he goes around saying things like “I didn’t know anything about the crime, so the next thing I know, I was on trial for first degree murder.” … As if he was randomly picked by the police.

    I find it inconceivable that he does not know anything about the murder. He told police in all his interviews that he was trying to
    facilitate selling her Acid the night she died. In his third interview on March 7th 1985, he told police that “he and Rick Terry, his drug connection, went to Pam’s house. He intended to set Terry up with Pam so Terry could get sex from Pam in exchange for drugs. [McCarty], by setting this up, could get extra drugs.” McCARTY v. STATE, 1995 OK CR 48 (Okla. Crim. App. 1995)

    Also he was never exonerated or proven innocent. The sperm in Ms. Willis did not match McCarty’s DNA but the court rejected his actual innocence claim based on this because, as his counsel had pointed out in previous trials, there was little evidence that a sexual assault had actually occurred; therefore, “the fact that the semen did not prove to be Petitioner’s is hardly proof that Petitioner is innocent of murder.” McCarty v. State, 2005 OK CR 10, 18 (Okla. Crim. App. 2005) Instead his conviction was overturned and remanded for a new trial. Judge Twyla Mason Gray reluctantly, but correctly, agreed to dismiss the case
    because of Gilchrist’s incompetent actions and likely intentional destruction of the pubic hairs which made it impossible to give McCarty a fair trial in 2007.

    Also his record might be tarnished because he had previously been convicted of second degree rape and he had felony murder charges brought against him regarding the September 17th 1983 murder of 7 year old Janelle Fowler who was beaten to death with a baseball bat. This incident was after Ms. Willis’s murder but before his first trial. He was able to tell police the exact location of Fowler’s body and admitted to helping dispose of it. The charges were eventually dismissed in part because by that time, he had received the death penalty with respect to the Willis murder.a McCarty v. State, 1998 OK CR 61, 43 (Okla. Crim. App. 1998). All of this came out at his 3rd sentencing and can be verified by looking at the case I just cited.

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