28 Feb ELEVEN DOLLAR$
The Story of the trial of Garrett Freeman
This was not my (Brecken Wagner) case, but at the time Wagner & Lynch had the indigent defense contract for Pittsburg and Latimer Counties. Not only did my office oversee the contract, but both my law partner Blake and I participated as attorneys for the indigent as well. When our office did handle the contract, we worked with other independent contracting attorneys. We had some rules for our attorneys, one of which was that they would never have to do a trial alone. Other contracting attorneys were expected to accept any requests to assist and secondary counsel at trial, or if nobody would step up, then a person would be assigned. I was asked by Wes Cherry, Garrett Freeman’s attorney if I would be his co-counsel, I gladly accepted and was bringing myself up to speed with the case the week before trial when I called Wes.
“Hey we need to get a look at that knife,” I said.
“I know. I’ll send another email, and if that doesn’t work, we are just going to have to file something.” Wes said. We talk a little longer about some factual questions I had, I was still getting familiar with the case and Wes had been living with this and walking around with it for nearly a year at this point. It was Sunday the 17th of September, this trial was scheduled to begin on the following Tuesday and we still had not been able to see the knife that Christopher Blanton was said to have in his hand when Garrett Freeman shot him point-blank in the face.
To the average reader, it might seem incredible that two defense attorneys were two days away from trial and had yet to see the most critical piece of evidence in their theory of self-defense, but it’s really not that uncommon. For some reason there are those prosecutors out there that think by playing games with discovery and hiding evidence or keeping it away from the defense as long as possible is actually a good strategy for being successful in trial. I doubt there is any county in the State of Oklahoma and possibly the country that goes to the lengths and efforts the Pittsburg County District Attorney’s Office does under the elected District Attorney Charles Brown Sullivan. It’s also pretty disgusting and gut-turning that they do this in an effort to convict people when what they are hiding might tend to show that they got the wrong person. But “winning” is the important thing to this office apparently, it has yet to be made clear where Justice fits.
Our conversation that night had started about the knife, but what we were most anxious about was Shane Powell’s return to Pittsburg County, which according to our source at the Pittsburg County Jail was likely to happen the following morning. We had been doing our best to find out exactly what time Shane would be brought in because we wanted to be there to talk to him when he was. Shane Powell was the State’s only real eye witness to the shooting, and at both the preliminary hearing and in an interview recently with our investigator he had described this as a self-defense shooting. Wes and I wanted to get a recorded statement out of him before any investigators from the District Attorney’s office got to him first and had an unrecorded meeting with him.
Too many times in my career have I had a witness in jail that had some testimony for me that was enough to blow a case wide open, and I just got to the jail as some folks from the DA’s office were leaving, only to find out my witness now had a complete change of tune and memory. I have heard more than once that my witness was just threatened with a new charge of perjury if they take the stand and that alone will prevent them from credits or early release. Convicting people and getting votes is a dirty business and sometimes this is how its played. Inmate witnesses are always the most vulnerable to this. They have the most to gain of the type of things a prosecutor can give them (help getting out of prison) and the most to lose if a prosecutor gets angry at them (it’s hard to fight a bogus perjury charge from behind bars and at the very least it will keep you from getting out on time).
Wes and I had decided that we would arrive at the jail, recorders in hand within minutes of Shane arriving. The recorders would help us to guarantee that if some goons showed up to help Shane with his memory, then we would have his statement from before.
Tomorrow was going to be an important day.
September 18, 2017
It was around 9:00 AM that morning when Wes and I were alerted by our source that Shane Powell had just arrived at the Pittsburg County Jail. We arrived not too long after and settled into the courtroom at the jail. It was once thought that some court matters would be conducted at the County Jail when It was built. The County has never held court there, and today it is mostly used for a visitation area and once a month the neighboring City of Krebs (famously known for being a speed trap and heavy-handed on fines) holds their version of traffic court.
It’s a strange room. It looks and feels like an actual courtroom, yet there is no denying that you are in a jail. Rather than the traditional large ornate wooden doors, you might expect to lead into a courtroom are instead thick steel doors that lock with a loud “clang” behind you. The walls are painted cinder-block and the air is thick with the musty urine-soaked jail smell. It has always struck me odd. I see courtrooms as places for truth, justice, hope and all those things we want our system to be. But to see a room that like this inside the belly of the monster is surreal. Instead, you are surrounded by lies, despair, and hopelessness. These things can never be washed from the walls of this place. Much like the brown stain of years of smoking will soak into the drywall of a home, that smell of hopelessness is soaked into the cinder-block walls of this place. No coat of paint will ever change that, the only way to remove that from the walls of this place would be to reduce it to dust. A noble goal.
Shane entered the room escorted by a jailer in a hurry to drop his inmate off and get back to doing whatever it was he still had on his mind. Shane looked curious, but made sure to keep his distance from us when he first entered the room. He sat down at the table across from us, but turned himself to sit parallel to the table. His body language was clearly telling us that he was present, but did not trust us, and if we didn’t clear that up quickly then he would be cutting this meeting short.
Wes began, he made the introductions brief and moved right into the issue which was Shane’s testimony. Shane immediately responded with his frustration that he felt that law enforcement and the district attorneys would never listen to what he actually had to say. It wasn’t even minutes into our meeting that Shane came out and said that Garrett was only ever acting in self-defense. When he saw that he had our full attention he began to turn in his chair, and we spent the next couple of hours together, preparing his testimony for trial the following day.
When we left the jail that day Wes and I felt good about our case and our story. Shane had confirmed our suspicions that this was a cut and dry situation of self-defense, it had been from the beginning. Everyone ran after the shooting, and most of the people in that room were felons and could not legally possess a gun, including our client. But as Shane would tell us, thank God he had had a gun, or Christopher Blanton might have hurt or killed more than one person that night, and there were plenty of reasons to think he would have.
Christopher Blanton did not have a reputation for being a patient and understanding person. At the preliminary hearing, Wes had cross-examined Shane Powell, and he testified that he had been around or “hung out” with Christopher Blanton a few times, and on each of those occasions, he was high on either Methamphetamine or Morphine or both. That’s the reason he as well as the others that were gathered at this house that night. Everyone there used meth, morphine or something else and everybody was just looking to find the next high. Powell also testified that Christopher was violent when he was high (the only times Powell ever saw Blanton he was high), especially when it came to his girlfriend. Powell claimed that a couple of days prior to this incident Blanton’s girlfriend had told him that Christopher had beaten her and held a gun to her head. This was never proven, nor did the girlfriend ever file a police report, but Powell wanted the court to know that at the preliminary hearing and over the objections of counsel he stated it.
It was Powell that from the beginning could and did tell the story of what happened that day. He told it at the preliminary hearing, he told it to us when we went and interviewed him at the jail (It ends up that Wes and I were the only ones to interview Shane Powell, ever. Nobody from the DA’s office or any officers ever talked to Shane Powell. The only eye witness to a shooting! Seriously!) and, it was the same story that he told at trial, and wow was this a fast trial.
After leaving the jail that day our next stop was the District Attorney’s office, they were going to let us see the knife. We waited at a table inside the office for a little bit while one of the prosecutors retrieved the knife. They brought it to us in a clear sealed tube. I asked them to take it out and they did. It was a silver pocketknife and although it was on the bigger side, it looked rather mundane. Then I asked if it could be opened, and when the prosecutor opened the knife exposing the full blade, I swallowed hard and hoped that if Wes did see what I just saw he would swallow hard and stay silent as well. Fortunately, he did and I couldn’t wait to get out of there and discuss what I’d seen.
We walked out into the alley from the DA’s office, and as soon as I was sure the door was closed behind us, I said, “Damn, did you see what I saw? The tip of that knife?”
“I did, this is a big deal,” Wes said.
What we noticed when the blade was open was how the blade had been altered. The knife was just your average pocket knife, a tool carried by a large percentage of the population that would never call it a weapon, however, this one was different. Someone, presumably the owner, had sharpened the tip of the blade, both sides. This means someone made an effort to modify the blunt side of the knife to be sharp, which would only be necessary if you were wanting to use the knife to stab, rather than cut. A knife can have thousands of innocent cutting duties, but there are very few innocent reasons to carry around a pocket knife that has been modified for stabbing. It was getting harder and harder to see anything but self-defense here.
What really brings the whole self-defense theory together was the story that Shane Powell kept saying over and over…this story:
SHANE POWELL’S VERSION OF WHAT HAPPENED
Shane did not know Christopher Blanton well. He did know him from some times in which they “hung out” and did drugs together, but that was it. He had known Garrett for a couple of years and would describe him as a “good guy” that “wouldn’t hurt anyone on purpose”. According to Powell, he was at the house of an acquaintance and in a back bedroom. Inside the bedroom was Shane, Garrett, and Shane’s girlfriend were in the attached bathroom with the door closed at the time in which Christopher Blanton entered the room.
Blanton came into the room and seemed agitated. He demanded that Shane give him eleven dollars that he claimed Shane owed him. When Shane denied that he owed the money, Blanton walked past Garrett, who was sitting on the bed closest to the door and walked around the foot of the bed toward Powell who was on the other side. The two began to raise their voices when Garrett Freeman made a noise and got both of their attention. According to Powell, Garret was calmly holding a pistol in his right hand, attached to the pistol was a red laser sight, and that laser was now making an ominous red dot on the wall right between Powell and Blanton. Blanton, who had pulled his knife from his pocket and opened it as he crossed the room toward Powell, now turned his attention to Garrett. Freeman told Blanton to put the knife away, and after a couple of tense seconds, he did. Then Garrett lowered the gun and the red dot fell from the wall.
Blanton is said to have then said, “If you’re gonna pull a gun you better be willing to use it.” Or something to that effect. Chris Blanton then acted as though he was going to leave the room, and to do so he would have to walk by Freeman. As he rounded the foot of the bed and came closer to where Garret was the knife suddenly appeared again in his hand. What happened next was a loud pop and Christopher Blanton dropped straight down to the floor, the knife would be found underneath his body. He had suffered one shot from a nine-millimeter pistol to the face. He died instantly.
Everyone ran. It was said that Garrett called out that someone should call 911, as everyone fled. Everyone fled because this was essentially a “trap house” for using, buying, and selling drugs. Everyone there had some previous run-ins with the law, everyone there was either on drugs or trying to be on drugs, and everyone there was afraid of the police. So, they all ran.
Eventually, different people would be rounded up, including Garrett Freeman who was charged with First Degree Murder, a charge that should have never been filed.
The trial would be short, especially for a First-Degree Murder trial. So short in fact that we would have finished on the first day if the State had not told their Medical Examiner witness to be ready to testify on the second day. When recessed on the first day around three o’clock in the afternoon. Shane did testify that first day, and apparently his testimony was surprising to the prosecution, but of course, that makes sense since they never talked to him once.
The prosecution was led by the two top prosecutors in the county, the Elected District Attorney Charles Sullivan and his First Assistant Adam Scharn. This is essentially the number one and number two ranking prosecutors in the DA’s office and surely a sign that they were not taking this case seriously, right?
Instead, it was a comedy of errors, to say the least, the greatest error being the State’s star witness, Shane Powell. At one point, during his direct examination, Sullivan asked if he could treat the witness as hostile because his testimony was so slanted toward the defense. Unfortunately for the State if they had just paid attention to their own case or interviewed any of the witnesses, they would have known that Powell was testifying consistently with all of his previous statements. His story never changed and he always told a story of self-defense.
We recessed day one with the intention of restarting the following day and calling the Medical Examiner. The Medical Examiner testified that Christopher Blanton died of a single gunshot and not much else. After his testimony, the State rested and the jury was recessed momentarily.
In every trial, the State rests and the jury is excused so that the Defense can make a motion to essentially dismiss the case or what is called requesting a “demurrer”. This is literally one of the motions that you go through in a trial. It is generally for the record and it is just never granted. If granted then the case would stop then and the jury would not even decide, because the Court has essentially ruled that the evidence against the defendant is so weak that it would be an affront to justice for the defendant to be convicted. So, as you can imagine this is an important part of the trial, but you never have an expectation that the Court will actually rule for you. I let Wes do the honors, put my earbuds in my ears, cranked up some Green Day and went for a stroll.
I left out of the courtroom and headed across to the Westernmost staircase. From there I went down to the first floor and outside into the fresh air. I knew I had about ten minutes, so I began to walk around the building back onto the main entrance and then up to the second floor where we were having court. In this particular courtroom, the public entrance opens into the back of the gallery of the courtroom. As I entered the courtroom, I was surprised to see that Judge Bland was still in his seat behind the bench. Court was still in session. I quickly pulled the earbuds by their cord and shoved them in my pocket.
I quickly scanned the room, and as I did, I saw Wes’ face. His eyes were like dinner plates and he was motioning me quickly to get up there. I was walking down the aisle when I heard Judge Bland ask, “Mr. Sullivan does the state have any other evidence at all that has not been presented that would tend to show this was not self-defense?”
I glanced to my right, entering the well of the courtroom now, Where Chuck Sullivan, the elected District Attorney was standing and addressing the court. “No, Your Honor, we believe we have shown enough evidence that this was murder and we will stand on that evidence.”
What happened next is something that I never expected to see in my career. Although the law may provide for it, District Judges are elected officials, and you just never expect them to dismiss many criminal cases at all, especially a First-Degree Murder case. “Well, Mr. Sullivan,”, Judge Bland began, “You leave the Court no choice, the Demurrer is granted and the charge of First-Degree murder is hereby dismissed.”
We were shocked. Not with the final result, this was never a murder case and it shouldn’t have gotten this far. What was shocking was the amount of courage on behalf of the judge. It is so rare to find a judge that has the courage to actually follow through with their convictions. Over the course of the last two days, Judge Bland had the opportunity to observe the trial and evidence in its entirety, just like the jury, for the first time. He knew that the law and the spirit of the law said this case should not move forward, and he could have just let it go on to the jury for a decision, but instead he actually did the right thing.
The case wasn’t completely over. The State still had one charge remaining, the count of possessing a firearm after felony conviction. Ironically it was this same firearm that saved his life, but the jury felt compelled to find him guilty (he technically was according to the elements) and suggested a sentence of ten years. A sentence Garret is still unfortunately serving today.
The State did appeal Judge Bland’s ruling and on the 2nd of March, 2018, Judge Lumpkin dismissed the case on behalf of the Court of Criminal Appeals because the State did not follow the proper procedure in filing their appeal, they did not attempt to correct their mistake and the case has been closed.
This was not the first or last time Wagner & Lynch has collaborated with Wes Cherry and Foundation Law on a case. This is the only case we have worked on together that has gone to a trial, and I’m a little proud to say it resulted in an extraordinary ending. I have asked around and to my knowledge, this might be the only murder case ever demurred at trial, at least in Oklahoma in the last several years. It was a rare event and I don’t have any expectations of it occurring again in my lifetime.