Plea Agreement Frees Man Twice Sentenced to Death Row in Oklahoma

Twice convicted of murder, twice sentenced to death row, and twice having his convictions overturned on appeal because of inadequate counsel, James T. Fisher, Jr., was ordered freed last week when prosecutors decided to accept a plea deal rather than to attempt a third trial.

Details of His Convictions

The former death row inmate was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1982 killing of Terry Gene Neal in Oklahoma City.  Neal was killed after his attacker stabbed him in the throat with a broken bottle, and stole his car and television.  There was no forensic evidence to tie Fisher to the crime, and the prosecution largely relied on the testimony of witness Fadjo Johnson, who was originally charged with Neal's murder.  Johnson said that he and Fisher met Neal in an Oklahoma City area known for homosexual prostitution.  The witness claimed that Fisher killed Neal after having sex with him.

Despite such shaky evidence, Fisher was convicted of first degree murder in 1983 and sentenced to death.  However, he appealed the decision saying that his Oklahoma defense attorney inadequately defended him against the charges. 

At Fisher's appeal, the attorney who represented him in the first trial admitted that he let his personal feelings about homosexuality interfere with his work.  An appeals court ruled that the defense lawyer was "grossly inept" and that he "sabotaged his client's defense."  The murder conviction was overturned. In 2005, history seemed to repeat itself at Fisher's retrial.  He was again convicted of Neal's murder and again sentenced to death.  Just as before, he appealed the conviction on grounds of inadequate counsel.  

His Oklahoma City defense lawyer for the second trial admitted that he was in the midst of substance abuse problems during the retrial, and that he was unable to properly defend his client. After two convictions overturned on appeal, prosecutors were faced with the dilemma of trying Fisher a third time--this time with evidence that was nearly 28 years old. 

Negotiating a Plea Agreement

Rather than attempting a third trial, prosecutors accepted a plea agreement negotiated with Fisher's current attorney.  As part of the deal, Fisher pleaded guilty to first degree murder and was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.  He was given credit for time served, 27 years, and the rest of his sentence was suspended. 

As a result of the agreement, Fisher will be released from prison into an intensive reintegration program in another state, which is designed to help Fisher transition back into society.  Fisher's current defense attorney says that the program usually takes six months to three years to complete. As a stipulation of his plea agreement and subsequent release, Fisher is order never to set foot in Oklahoma again.

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