Mitchell’s case has been given new attention in light of a series of recent Supreme Court rulings addressing extreme sentences for juveniles.
Read the story in the Tulsa World here.
By Hannah Brown, Troy Closson, Nadine Daher, Elissa Gray, Talia Hendel, Darby Hopper, HyoJung Kim, Nirmal Mulaikal, Kali Robinson and Crystal Wall
The Medill Justice Project
In 1993, a jury convicted Robert Wayne Mitchell of murder for fatally stabbing his 90-year-old neighbor, then recommended he spend the rest of his years in prison. A judge agreed and sentenced him to life without parole. Mitchell was 16 years old.
Twenty-five years later, the trial judge who sentenced Mitchell said he has never forgotten how young Mitchell was at the time.
“Looking back on all the cases I’ve heard and the sentences I imposed … that’s the one sentence I regret,” Gordon R. Melson told The Medill Justice Project. “… People that age should have a chance to get out at some point.”
Melson’s second thoughts reflect a growing re-examination of juvenile sentencing nationwide. Mitchell’s case has been given new attention in light of a series of recent Supreme Court rulings addressing extreme sentences for juveniles.
Since 2005, the court has released four landmark decisions that use neuroscience and cognitive brain science to apply the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments” to the sentencing of juveniles, including a ban on mandatory convictions of life without parole.
Mitchell, who was 15 at the time of the murder, was granted a resentencing hearing as a result of a 2016 Supreme Court ruling requiring that cases like his be reconsidered.
That resentencing hearing, expected to take place this year, will not address his innocence or guilt but instead determine his eligibility for parole. It’s been delayed as Mitchell’s attorneys and prosecutors sort through questions of jurisdiction and whether the crime occurred on Native American territory and considered under federal rather than state authority.
The victim in Mitchell’s case, Myrtle Ruby McGehee, was murdered in Seminole County in eastern Oklahoma, and Mitchell was tried by state authorities. He has Seminole and Creek heritage and is a registered member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said Pearl Seaboy, Mitchell’s stepsister.
During Mitchell’s original trial in September 1993, lead District Attorney William N. Peterson was unable to provide the jury with a murder weapon or eyewitnesses. But the evidence the state did provide — a few drops of blood on a shoe, a blood-smeared sock and a footprint in blood pooled on McGehee’s floor — was enough for the jury to convict.
Iris Dalley of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation testified that a footprint found under McGehee’s body indicated that it was made before she fell to the floor. The print matched a style of Adidas shoes that Mitchell owned, she said.
In addition, Dalley said the angle of the blood smear on a sock found in Mitchell’s laundry hamper reflected the wiping of a straight-edged object on the fabric.
Dalley’s one-page report on the sock was filed before trial, even though she had had the sock since February 1993. Rob L. Pyron, Mitchell’s court-appointed attorney, complained he didn’t have adequate time to assess the report and find an expert witness to refute it.
At the time, Judge Melson noted that “I’m kind of concerned that all of a sudden a report would be made right before the (trial) before (the defense) would have a chance to analyze and look at it and get another report.”
Still, the judge allowed Dalley to testify about the sock, but only about her “opinion” based on a visual observation.
No photographs of the footprint were presented during trial. Dalley declined to comment to The Medill Justice Project.
John Lawrence Quill, a supervisory special agent with the FBI who works with DNA, testified he was able to put McGehee’s DNA within the pool of possible matches for the blood evidence found on Mitchell’s sock.
Mitchell told The Medill Justice Project he didn’t testify in his own defense based on Pyron’s guidance. Pyron called only Mitchell’s grandmother as a witness, according to the trial transcript. It is not uncommon for defendants in criminal trials to call no witnesses at all, instead attempting to put the state to its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Pyron, the former president of the Seminole County Bar Association, died at age 69 during the course of The Medill Justice Project’s reporting.
Mitchell’s story of how he found McGehee has varied over time.
Mitchell initially told police he saw a light on at his neighbor’s house far past her normal bedtime, prompting him to tell his grandmother about it; she told him to check on her. However, Mitchell said in an interview with The Medill Justice Project that his grandmother saw the light, which Mitchell thought might have been a car light.
In his initial police interview, Mitchell said he peered through the window and saw the body. He later changed his story to police and said he entered the house and held the body.
Mitchell and McGehee were neighbors, living across a dirt road from each other. According to court documents, Mitchell did errands for McGehee, getting her mail and doing yardwork. McGehee lived in a small, single-story house where relatives said she liked to read and quilt for her seven children and 17 grandchildren. One of McGehee’s grandchildren, Jerry Pat Grant, described her to The Medill Justice Project as a determined woman who was not slowed down by old age.
Mitchell’s character came under close scrutiny during sentencing. He had a history of fighting and violence in school, and pre-sentencing psychological evaluations described him as having “a childlike orientation” and “periods of impulsive acting out.”
Raised primarily by his Native American grandmother, Lottie Mitchell, Robert Mitchell attended stomp dances, to learn more about his Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) roots, and went to church, according to his family, family friends and neighbors.
“I’ll be honest with you, I was thinking please, I didn’t want it to be him,” Grant told The Medill Justice Project. “I knew that he has kind of gotten into a lot of trouble at school and so forth. He was not perfect, but no one is.”
But Grant still believes Mitchell is guilty, as do her relatives.
The trial judge said the jury recommendation and the McGehee family’s anger influenced his sentencing decision.
“I have a feeling that if the jury had not recommended that and it was left to my discretion, I suspect I would have given him life with the possibility of parole,” Melson said.
Ultimately, it was brain science, not emotion or forensic science, that landed Mitchell the upcoming resentencing trial.
A couple of months after Mitchell turned 28 in 2005, the Supreme Court determined that it is unconstitutional to assign the death penalty to someone under 18. It was the first time the court cited brain science to differentiate the punishment of youth from adults.
Riya Saha Shah, managing director of the Juvenile Law Center, the nation’s oldest public interest law firm for children’s advocacy, said the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making, doesn’t fully develop until a person is in their mid-20s. This means younger individuals are more likely to take risks and act impulsively, she said.
“Given this brain science research and the cognitive adolescent development research, we determined that kids are less culpable than their adult counterparts, and if they’re less culpable then they can’t be held to the same penalty,” Shah said.
In the 2012 Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama, the court bolstered its analysis of diminished culpability for juveniles by writing that they should only rarely be sentenced to spend life behind bars — even in homicide cases.
Three years ago, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court determined that the Miller standard must apply retroactively and that offenders sentenced as juveniles to life without parole must be given hope for release if their crime did not reflect “irreparable corruption.” What that term means for current offenders is being litigated across the country, including in Mitchell’s case.
Juvenile sentencing is not the only Supreme Court issue that could affect Mitchell. The court’s ruling this year in Carpenter v. Murphy could determine the landscape of criminal jurisdiction over Native Americans.
In 2000, the State of Oklahoma sentenced Patrick Murphy, a Muscogee (Creek) tribe member, to death for the murder of another member of the tribe. When a Native American commits a serious crime on reservation land or land held in trust for Native American nations, jurisdiction to prosecute the accused falls to federal agencies, not the state. Murphy’s defense argued that the crime occurred on a reservation and therefore the state of Oklahoma lacked the jurisdiction to prosecute Murphy, rendering his conviction and death sentence invalid.
The federal appeals court in the 10th Circuit, the court that most recently heard the case, sided with Murphy. If the Supreme Court upholds the decision, Murphy’s conviction would be overturned and he would be retried for the crime in federal court.
Mitchell’s attorney, Kevin Kemper, told The Medill Justice Project he is conducting a title examination of the land where McGehee lived to find out if it was legally transferred out of tribal ownership. McGehee was without tribal affiliation.
If it is tribal land, Kemper said he will argue that Mitchell’s case should also have been prosecuted by the federal government, not the state.
Mitchell’s resentencing hearing is expected to take place this year.
District Attorney Paul Smith — the prosecutor who will argue that Mitchell’s current sentence should be upheld — told The Medill Justice Project that it is the state’s role to prove that Mitchell is permanently incorrigible. In court documents, Smith wrote the state is seeking life without parole not just because of the nature of the crime but because of Mitchell’s “propensity for violence” as an inmate.
Kemper plans on presenting evidence from experts, tribal elders and others to speak to Mitchell’s character. “Only a sociopath would commit a murder of a 90-year-old woman with no apparent motive,” Kemper said. “And he’s not a sociopath.”
Mitchell will soon undergo a psychological test to determine his mental health status, Kemper said.
The state will use Mitchell’s behavior during his incarceration to make their case, Smith said. This includes Mitchell’s prison records and other forms of evidence.
While incarcerated, Mitchell obtained his GED in 2004 and completed a number of personal growth-related courses. Mitchell said he spends his free time researching his case in the prison’s law library and making traditional beadwork.
Even though Mitchell has spent 25 years in prison, Kemper said he believes he could successfully rejoin society if released on parole. Both the local Native American community and his former church congregation would be support systems for Mitchell, Kemper said.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation Reintegration Program, an initiative to provide services to tribally enrolled Creek citizens after they are released from prison, is another option for Mitchell. The services include housing, food, clothing and drivers license reinstatement, said Mark Harjo, a case aide at the program.
Still, Jerry A. McGehee and Patsy McGehee, Myrtle McGehee’s son and daughter-in-law, said in an interview that if Mitchell were released, they would fear retaliation from him. Both said they believe he’s guilty.
A review of the transcript of Mitchell’s original trial shows that his attorney, Pyron, aggressively argued the case and closely questioned witnesses. However, it also reveals what Pyron himself called an error in preparing for the case.
Peterson, the district attorney, said during the trial that Pyron failed to file a motion for discovery, which would have given Pyron earlier access to the prosecution’s forensic evidence.
Connie S. Smothermon, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, said discovery is important in all criminal cases. “I don’t think I would defend a city DUI ticket without knowing, you know, what the officer’s report said or if there were any witness statements,” she said.
But formal discovery requests aren’t always necessary in a tight-knit legal community like Seminole County, said Joshua L. Pyron, son of Rob Pyron and an attorney at his father’s law firm.
“Simply because there is no formal motion for discovery does not necessarily mean that discovery was not sought and discovery was not gained,” he told The Medill Justice Project. “The policy is an open file policy with the District Attorney’s Office, meaning any attorney who represents any defendant can walk into that office and get a copy of anything.”
The discovery issue surfaced when Rob Pyron objected to Dalley’s testimony at trial about blood patterns on Mitchell’s sock. Under Oklahoma statute, the prosecution, upon request, must submit all discovery to the defense at least 10 days before trial, which was when Dalley completed her report. According to court documents, Pyron said he did not receive the report until one or two days after that, leaving him inadequate time to find a rebuttal expert.
“This is my error,” said Pyron during trial, after Peterson mentioned the lack of a formal discovery motion. “I had assumed that the District Attorney was providing me. I had requested by letter all scientific reports.”
Still, the judge allowed Dalley’s testimony about Mitchell’s sock. An alternate juror, Bobbie Winrow, said the bloody sock was one of the pieces of evidence that convinced her of Mitchell’s guilt.
“The evidence all really led to him. I mean there was nobody else there — same size shoe, same footprint, he just lives, like, not even far from her, and they find this stuff in his grandma’s house,” Winrow told The Medill Justice Project.
When Mitchell appealed his conviction in 1994, he raised the issue of Dalley’s report about the sock. His attorneys argued the defense should have had “adequate opportunity” for forensic examination of the blood evidence.
“We agree, but we further find that such a right was waived by failure of Appellant to request discoverable evidence,” wrote the appellate court in dismissing the appeal.
Mitchell’s guilt is a point of doubt for some who knew him well.
The Miller family, with whom Mitchell lived during several summers, still believe in Mitchell’s innocence. They cite the way Mitchell was taught and raised by his grandmother and members of the Native American community, and the respect he showed elders and children.
“He didn’t do it,” said Carol Miller.
Mitchell’s lack of motive to murder McGehee is another indication of his innocence, said Ted Underwood, Mitchell’s neighbor.
But jury members interviewed by The Medill Justice Project remain convinced that Mitchell has been rightfully found guilty. Tommy Dwayne Darr, the jury foreman, said in an email that Mitchell “was and is guilty of the charges.”
Winrow said she feels the same and would support resentencing Mitchell to life with parole only if he admits his guilt.
This investigation was conducted by ten undergraduate students at Northwestern University as part of an investigative journalism course taught by Desiree Hanford and George Papajohn. The Medill Justice Project supported the class work. Allisha Azlan, MJP associate, also contributed to this report.