Keating commutes death sentence

Tuesday, April 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Nearly 18 years after he beat a man to death in Muskogee, Phillip Dewitt Smith now knows he won't be executed. Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating Monday commuted his sentence from death to life in prison without parole.

KOTV's Sean Mossman says Governor Keating cited the fact that Smith's conviction was based mainly on circumstantial evidence. A fact that doesn't seem to bother Attorney General Drew Edmonson, the man who put Smith away in 1984. Phillip Smith was due to be dead already. Originally scheduled to be executed in March, Smith received two stays of execution from Governor Keating. The pardon and Parole board advised Keating in February to grant Smith clemency, but the governor needed time to weigh the evidence. "I examined all of the evidence that I could obtain and concluded that life in prison without the possibility of parole was the appropriate result of this clemency request."

In April 1983 Smith broke into Matthew Taylor's apartment in downtown Muskogee. He robbed Taylor and beat him to death with a hammer. It was several months before Smith was found in California and brought back to face trial. A Muskogee jury in a trial argued by then Muskogee County DA Drew Edmonson sentenced him to death. After learning of Keating's decision, Edmonson responded via written statement. "I did my job as prosecutor. The jury did its job by finding Smith Guilty. Our jobs are over. Now the Governor has done the job he is constitutionally called upon to do."

Keating says he based his decision on several factors. One, the pardon and parole boards request for clemency. Two, the fact that two key witnesses against Smith have since recanted their stories. And three, the fact that the case against Smith was mostly circumstantial. "There was no forensic evidence. The forensic evidence that was obtained from the crime scene was lost." The death row commutation was the first in the state in 35 years. But, unlike Dallas Sharp in 1966, Phillip Smith will never have a chance at parole.

Not all of the five pardon and parole board members voted for clemency in the Smith case. Two recommended life without parole, two suggested life with the chance of parole, and one member stuck with the death penalty.