By Victoria Valenzuela / ScheerPost Criminal Justice Reporter
Glynn Simmons, who spent 48 years 1 month and 18 days in an Oklahoma prison for a crime he did not commit, has been exonerated, having served the longest sentence for a wrongfully convicted person in U.S. history.
Simmons and a co-defendant were sentenced to death in 1975 for a murder committed during a liquor store robbery, but the death sentences were commuted to life in prison when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled capital punishment unconstitutional. The co-defendant was paroled in 2008.
Simmons was 22 years old when two women were shot in a liquor store robbery on New Years Eve in 1974. One woman, Carolyn Sue Rogers, died. The surviving woman, Belinda Brown, was shot in the back of the head, but lived and claimed not to remember much. As the police investigation went on, she became an eyewitness to eight different lineups, during which she identified five different men — none of them were Simmons, but that information was withheld from the defense, and he was charged. Simmons also said he had not been to Oklahoma until a week after the crime, but his alibi was disregarded by the police.
Simmons filed motions for post-conviction relief and writ of habeas corpus, but both were denied. In 1997, Simmons hired a private investigator who later found an exculpatory police report detailing that five other men had been identified by the surviving witness, and he had not been one of them. This report was not turned over by the prosecutors and was missing from the case file.
“I never was picked out of a lineup. I’m still trying to figure out how did I get identified as the suspect? How did the police make me the suspect when the witness didn’t even identify me?” Simmons told Oklahoma’s News 4, a news station that has spent over 20 years looking into his case since he first reached out to them via letter.
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Last April, Simmons was granted an evidentiary hearing in the Oklahoma County District Court, where the missing police report was introduced and over a dozen alibi witnesses testified that Simmons was in Louisiana during the time of the murder. Three months later, the judge dismissed the murder conviction, and Simmons was released. He was later exonerated in September, after Oklahoma County District Attorney Vicki Behenna dropped charges against him.
“I’m happy, and I’m free. It’s a long, long struggle. … We need to reimagine justice and how we do it,” Simmons told The Black Wall Street Times.
Simmons was the third person this year to be exonerated after being sentenced to death — all cases of which involved some sort of official misconduct — and is the 195th person exonerated after a death sentence since 1973.
A year before Simmons was freed, the Death Penalty Information Center published an analysis that found rampant prosecutorial misconduct in death penalty prosecutions, with 550 prosecutorial misconduct reversals and exonerations since 1972.
Of 43 people in Oklahoma who have been exonerated since 1989, six from Oklahoma County—two other cases stand out. In November 2021, Julius Jones, 44, who has spent half his life in prison for a murder he’s always said he didn’t commit, came within hours of execution before Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted his death sentence to life without parole, following large protests and media coverage. Convicted at the age of 19, Jones has twice been recommended for commutation by the Oklahoma Pardon & Parole Board to have his sentence commuted from life without parole and has six million signatures in support of his exoneration.
Earlier this year Richard Glossip, who has been on Oklahoma’s death row for 26 years even though it is undisputed that another man actually committed the crime, had his ninth execution date halted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the days leading up to his execution due to the serious doubts about his conviction. Two independent investigations found that Glossip’s conviction should be overturned, and many are still petitioning to save Glossip’s life.
Simmons, now 70, is now building a life in Oklahoma City, where he said he plans to fight for criminal justice reform.
“I plan to use my remaining time to help others who are still stuck where I was,” Simmons wrote on his GoFundMe page. “We need to fix this system so that what happened to me will never happen to anyone else, ever again!”
Victoria Valenzuela is an investigative reporter based in California covering issues in criminal justice. She currently oversees the criminal justice coverage as a reporter at ScheerPost. She is also a fellow with the Law and Justice Journalism Project. In the past, Valenzuela has also worked with ProPublica, BuzzFeed News, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She is completing graduate studies at the University of Southern California, where she formerly helped teach a class on the power and responsibility of the press.