Underrepresented: Oklahoma Death Row Inmate Michael Smith, the Relentless Campaign of a Mother and the Failure of the Capital Habeas Unit in Oklahoma
This is Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood. I serve as a spiritual advisor to Michael Smith, who is currently imprisoned on Oklahoma’s Death Row. I am here with Michael Smith’s mom, Vanessa Smith, to give her the opportunity to discuss some of the recent frustrations that she’s had with Michael’s legal representation at the Capital Habeas Unit in Oklahoma City.
*Edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell me about some of your experiences…
The Capital Habeas Unit…I’m frustrated with everybody down there. I’m just trying to get my son a new lawyer and they’re doing everything they can to stop it. I don’t understand. I’m just so frustrated. We get our spirits up…and they just take them down.
We got a pro bono lawyer, they stopped him. Now we got us a paid lawyer, they’re trying to stop him.
It’s not good. It’s not good.
Mrs. Smith, so what has the last couple months been like…
They, they’ve stopped everything. There is one of their messengers that they send down there to visits. She walked up to me and said that the folks at the Habeas Unit weren’t going to mess with us anymore and that, “tell your lawyer to file everything that he needs to.” Two weeks later, we’re back where we started from. The Habeas Unit continues to bully the new layer into backing down (and they even just filed a bar complaint).
When I’ve had conversation with them, they repeatedly say, “Are you trying to ruin our reputation?” All we want to do is move on. And my son has took every legal step to let them know that he no longer wants the Habeas Unit to represent him.
Where did things take a negative turn?
One of their attorneys was in my house and told me, “You can cry now.” That is very heartless to me. We’re here to try to save my son’s life. You don’t know how many times, how much I’ve cried. You can’t, you can’t make me cry because you want me to cry. That is very heartless.
I’ve never. I don’t understand these people.
Has Michael ever been happy with his representation?
No, he hasn’t.
It’s been 21 years.
The Habeas Unit told me that it’s nothing else they could do for my son. We want to move on. We have a new attorney and a private investigator. They won’t let us move on.
They told you that there is nothing they can do for your son?
That’s exactly what I was told.
And I don’t understand why he can’t have a different lawyer if he wants to hire an attorney.
So, just to make sure everybody understands, you had a pro bono attorney who agreed to take the case and they were scared off by the Habeas Unit. And now, you’ve hired an attorney that the Habeas Unit is currently trying to scare off.
Yes, they’re bullying him. That’s the way they are, going around bullying people. You know, they’re bullying these attorneys. They’ve threatened me. They will do whatever it takes to get you to do what they want you to do.
It’s almost like they feel like they think they own the case. That nobody, that nobody else gets to touch it.
How does it make you feel that these people have so much control over Michael’s case?
It’s hurtful. We are sitting back watching other people have their lawyers. We can’t get another lawyer if we want to. It really hurts.
We just keep getting our spirits up just a little bit and they take that away from us.
Why do some cases get more attention than others?
It’s a racist thing going on. You know what I’m saying? And I don’t, I don’t like to say that, but once it’s there for you to see, you know…. I just don’t get it.
I had one of them Habeas Unit attorneys say, “We love Michael.” No, you don’t. Cause if you loved Michael, you would let him go. You hear me? I love Michael. I’m his mom. You don’t love Michael. You just down there for the money and the recognition. That’s all they down there for. And it’s not right. They don’t care about the guys down there.
They didn’t help my son, they railroaded him.
So, do you think that the Habeas Unit has treated Michael the way that they’ve treated him because he’s black?
Yes, yes I do. Yes, I do. …and it’s just not him.
They’re heartless. They don’t care about anybody but themself.
I asked one of them, “What if it was your kid? How would you feel? What would you do?” They couldn’t answer that question for me.
So, obviously Michael’s execution date is coming up in the next year. So, y’all got a limited amount of time. This is about life and death.
If we can’t get him new attorneys he is going to be executed. They seem to be stalling for that. They don’t care. They’ve showed me that.
If you could get a message to the Habeas Unit, what would you say?
Please, let our lawyers file the work that they need to file so we can move on. I’m trying to save my son’s life. Please stop. Just let us do what we need to do. Please.