Dead man talking

A death row inmate in Tennessee could be the last to die in Ol' Sparky, unless new evidence can get him a retrial.

Published March 20, 2000 2:00PM (EST)

The lawn is a lush green around the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison, a cluster of boxy, tan buildings at the top of a hill. Take away the electric fencing, and the prison would look like a high school, tense and quiet before the bell rings. Until you've passed through a series of metal detectors and steel-locked doors, the grunts and moans of Tennessee's death row are barely audible.

Philip Workman, 46, sits down for an interview, in shackles. On April 6, he will most likely be the second man the state executes in a month's time -- and the second it has executed in 40 years. He could pass for a construction worker with his medium, muscular build and closely trimmed goatee. Wearing what he usually does, a huge pair of reading glasses and a baseball cap he made with gold lettering, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?), he says he's skipped breakfast this morning. Too many starches.

"I don't get to move around a lot," he says. "It's easy to get fat in here."

During his 17 years on death row, fearing the day he would sit in Ol' Sparky, the nickname given to the state's electric chair, Workman has been classified as a non-hostile inmate. He does not wear shackles when meeting with family, friends or his attorneys. They are only put on when the media visits.

New evidence that might exonerate Workman of the crime has raised hopes of a reprieve. A recently discovered autopsy X-ray shows the officer was killed by a .38 caliber bullet, not a .45, like Workman's gun.

But by putting in a bid for a retrial, the defense took back a clemency hearing request and there is no guarantee that Workman will get another hearing. It doesn't change his execution date of April 6 either. The state is calling for Workman to die, and hope for a reprieve from the governor is nil.

In 1982, Workman was convicted of the murder of a Memphis police officer, Lt. Ronald Oliver, though the bullet that killed Oliver was never found. Workman is aware that he is fuel for the death penalty debate, which has been burning brighter than ever since 13 men on Illinois' death row were freed last year. In January, Illinois Gov. George Ryan announced a moratorium on executions in the state and formed a committee to evaluate capital convictions. "Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is guilty," Ryan told the press, "no one will meet that fate." Northwestern University journalism professor Lawrence Marshall, who was part of the campaign to halt executions in Illinois, has joined Workman's defense team.

Capital punishment has also been an issue in light of the presidential election. Texas Gov. George W. Bush's long record of executions, including the February death of Betty Lou Beets, has raised questions about the candidate's "compassionate conservatism." But the presidential race isn't likely to shake up the issue much. Tennessee-based challenger, Vice President Al Gore, is also in favor of the death penalty. Gore has not commented on Workman's case.

In many ways, Workman's story is sadly common, even clichid: Poor white guy gets bad lawyers and the death penalty for a crime that there's reasonable doubt he committed. He finds Jesus in prison and effectively garners the support and sympathy of Christian death penalty opponents. Ten years after his conviction, two state-employed, post-conviction attorneys in their late 20s, both new to the game, find his file in a pile of other death row throwaways and start digging.

In an unusual twist, Oliver's first wife and daughter want Workman's sentence reduced to life in prison. His daughter, Paula, appears in a video that was made to be aired at the clemency hearing, telling the governor that even if Workman killed her father, she believes it was not intentional. The tape shows television footage, autopsy diagrams and crime-scene stills that attempt to make a case for his innocence. Workman's own daughter, Crystal Michelle, also pleads on the video that her father be shown mercy.

But Oliver's wife, Sandra Oliver Noblin, has said she's looking forward to Workman's execution. She's not alone. The state Attorney General Paul Summers has said that even if Workman is not legally responsible for the lieutenant's death, he is "morally responsible."

These are the facts both the prosecution and defense agree on.

Almost 20 years ago, Workman was a destitute drug addict who inhaled, drank or snorted whatever he could find to get high. He had held odd jobs to support his wife and 8-year-old daughter in Columbus, Ga. On Aug. 5, 1981, he left them and hitchhiked to nowhere in particular, saving just enough money to buy vials of cocaine to shoot twice that night. He ran out of cash near Memphis.

Workman's head was foggy, his stomach empty. Rubbing the .45 he had brought for the trip, he spotted a Wendy's hamburger restaurant in the distance. And after an hour of eating french fries and a burger, he robbed the place.

An employee tripped the silent alarm and Oliver showed up. Mistaking Workman for the night clean-up guy, Oliver did not hand-cuff Workman, who had already stuffed his .45 inside his jacket. When they walked out, they bumped into Memphis police officer Aubrey Stoddard.

Workman panicked and bolted. The men grabbed him in a bear hug. Workman wiggled his gun up and shot Stoddard in the arm. The lieutenant lost his grip, and another shot rang out. When the scuffle ended, Oliver -- whose job did not require him to answer alarm calls -- was dead from one bullet wound that broke his seventh rib and pierced his heart. He died on the pavement near the restaurant's flower bed.

The bullet that ripped through Oliver was never recovered. Workman's defense attorneys, Christopher Minton and Jefferson Dorsey, say ballistics evidence suggests that one of the officers -- Stoddard or the only other cop at the scene, officer Steven Parker, now a U.S. district attorney -- accidentally shot Oliver.

To prove this, the defense has brought in some heavy hitters, Georgia's chief medical examiner and Pittsburgh pathologist Cyril Wecht, who was lead consultant on the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Assassins, which analyzed both Kennedy killings. Both experts say Oliver's wound is consistent with damage caused by a .38 bullet -- like the ones in the officers' guns, not a .45 like Workman was carrying.

It helps the defense that Stoddard and Parker's initial police statement's differed. Also, another officer said he saw Parker carrying his weapon to the scene. Parker and Stoddard contend their guns never left their holsters. That officer came down with appendicitis before the trial and did not testify. The state's key witness in the 1982 trial, a known drug addict and alcoholic, has recently said on videotape that he lied about seeing Workman pull the trigger.

With drama befitting a John Grisham novel, the day before their client's last-chance clemency hearing, Minton and Dorsey uncovered a missing autopsy X-ray taken by the Memphis/Shelby County medical examiner, O.C. Smith. He says that he just forgot about the X-ray's existence, and that it "just got lost" over years of refiling. Monday, 10 out of the 12 jurors went on record saying they would not have recommended the death penalty knowing the new information.

If the bullet that killed that cop didn't come from Workman's gun, he is not guilty of a murder -- which gives juries the death penalty option -- but of robbery and attempted murder (for shooting Stoddard in the arm). Convicted of those charges, he would have gotten life in prison at most.

In light of the new evidence, the attorneys filed an appeal with the Sixth Circuit Court, the U.S. Supreme Court subordinate, asking justices to grant Workman a new trial. They could rule as early as Friday.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist, the only person with the authority to commute Workman's sentence, will not answer questions about the impending execution.

"I am for the death penalty for heinous crimes," he said in an interview last Wednesday. "I will take into account the facts in each case."

Workman's hopes are tempered by years in confinement. "I've never had any faith in the courts and I've always taken the state of Tennessee seriously," Workman says, leaning forward. "This was the end of the line for me. The end of everything. I knew I was gonna die here."

If the lights go out once again in Tennessee, it will be for Robert Glen Coe first. He was convicted of raping and killing an 8-year-old. His antics over the past few months in Memphis courts were so outrageous -- swearing, kicking the table, screaming and spitting at the judge -- his face had to be wrapped tightly in gauze like Hannibal Lector. He is scheduled to die by lethal injection Thursday. In fact, Roe's case prompted a public call for the renewal of capital punishment in the state. In Tennessee, inmates are given a choice between that method and electrocution. Workman's professed religious faith mandates that he not participate in his own death. By default, he gets the chair.

Ol' Sparky hasn't gotten much use in the past several decades, and Workman's sentence has prompted the legislature to pass new laws regarding state executions. An engineer was brought in from Arkansas to rewire the chair when Workman unexpectedly did not choose lethal injection. To avoid botched electrocutions, which typically result in major lawsuits, those given the death penalty for crimes committed after Jan. 1, 1999, will die by lethal injection.

"I feel responsible for initiating what happened," Workman says, "for bringing everyone together. But if I didn't kill him, then all of this has been a mistake." he says. "I'm really sorry for what happened."

After a few hours of conversation with Workman, two guards who have been watching interrupt and say the interview needs to end soon. It's strangely easy to become comfortable in the sanitary calm of the prison's visiting room, complete with toys for inmates' children, toys Workman's grandchildren have played with. The guards apologize, but they're short one guard and are just not going to take any chances. Just days before, an unsupervised inmate named Bobo fatally bludgeoned two other prisoners with a set of weights.

Workman once again says if he did shoot Oliver, he didn't intend to. He turns to his attorney, Dorsey, who's sitting nearby and asks that if he gets a second shot at a clemency hearing, he should bring in a baggy filled with powdered sugar to show just how coked up he was during the robbery. Dorsey says Workman calls him almost every night.

He has no plans for April 6, Workman says. He's asked his attorneys to keep his family as far away as possible so they won't have to endure the media glare.

"No dyin's a good way to die," he answers, pausing. "If you're asking me if I'm ready, well, you'd think I would have had enough time. But I'm not."

Workman then quotes several Bible verses and hands me one of his plain white business cards on which another Old Testament verse is quoted. He has been warned by his attorneys to tone down his statements about being a born-again Christian. Too many people view his religious statements as an orchestrated way to dodge responsibility for the crime.

Outside the prison and through a series of locked metal doors, Dorsey says he doesn't know what chance Workman has now. He's too afraid to get his hopes up that the 6th Circuit will order a new trial. He knows the odds are not in favor of commutation.

"We're just waiting now," he says.

By Ashley Fantz

Ashley Fantz is a staff writer at the Memphis Flyer. She writes frequently about crime and justice issues.

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