Wrongful Convictions

Raye of Hope

Don Gilson Don Gilson

Clemency Granted 4-14-09 by the board. Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry put him to death on 5-14-2009!

Online petition - Have Mercy for Don Gilson 

From Gilson's defense attorney:

Legal History:

Don Gilson was convicted in Cleveland County in 1998 under OK’s 1st degree capital murder scheme allowing for a death sentence for either “committing” or “permitting” child abuse resulting in death (here the death of 8 yr-old Shane Coffman).  This is a unique case expanding application of the death penalty.  Per a special verdict form, the jury returned a "split verdict" as to whether Don, the  boyfriend of the biological mother (Bertha Jean Coffman), had committed the child abuse or permitted the mother to commit the abuse. Don is in the unprecedented circumstance of facing execution premised on a verdict from a jury that did not agree he did anything more than “permit” abuse resulting in death.  The offense of “permitting” another to commit murder historically has never been subject to capital punishment – indeed, absent a legal duty, historically has not been any offense at all. Also, Ms. Coffman, during interrogations by police spanning 4 days, confessed  she’d  struggled with her son Shane throughout the day in question and caused his death. She later recanted and entered a guilty plea to get a life sentence for testifying against Don. She was sentenced after his trial.

The trial verdicts were upheld by the OCCA and Federal District Court.  On appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the court denied relief in a 2‑1 decision, Chief Judge Henry dissenting.  We filed a petition for rehearing en banc, regarding both a lesser included offense claim and a  proportionality claim.  En banc rehearings are granted when voted for by a majority of the active judges of the Circuit.  The petition for rehearing was denied based on a 6 to 6 equally divided vote as to the lesser included offense claim, and based on an 8 to 4 vote as to the proportionality claim. We were denied a writ of certiorari by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Our last opportunity is clemency, and our Clemency Hearing is set for Tuesday, April 14th, at 8:00 a.m.    

Clemency Themes: 

We are presenting 3 major grounds for Mercy/ Clemency.

First, due to the unique circumstances, Don faces an execution even though it is unclear what conduct he is being executed for. Even his jurors say they did not know who inflicted the abuse causing Shane’s death. This was expressed both in their split verdict and recent Affidavits submitted.

Second, it is unfair Ms. Coffman received a life sentence while Don is executed, when the overwhelming evidence points to Ms. Coffman as the “committer” and Don the “permitter.”  This result is distressing to certain jurors, who denounce their death verdict in light of Ms. Coffman’s sentence.  Two jurors say they’d be “relieved” if Don’s death sentence was commuted to life.  Id. (Now there are three juror affidavits instead of two.)

Third, Don’s involvement in the offense is likely attributable in great part to his profound brain damage suffered from a near fatal 1993 auto accident.  The accident resulted in loss of 25% to 33% of the functioning of his brain.  A mentally impaired Mr. Gilson walked into a deeply  dysfunctional situation which he was simply not equipped to handle.  The mitigating evidence of his permanent brain impairment was never presented to his sentencing jury.

Bertha Jean Coffman

Bertha Jean Coffman

According to the supporting evidence, Shane Coffman's biological mother abused and neglected her six children prior to Shane's death. Bertha Jean was hiding from DHS at Gilson's home and told authorities she moved to Texas and had chosen to home school her children.

All six children had been sexually abused by Coffman's former boyfriend and Coffman had been under scrutiny from DHS for living in filth and child abuse and neglect. In Coffman's OSBI interview, she stated that "Don loved all my children and would never hurt them." She changed her story and agreed to testify against Gilson and later stated he abused the children.

Coffman is currently serving a life without parole sentence for the following counts:

96-244 CLEV First Degree Murder (Child Abuse) 05/28/1998 LIFEWOP Life w/o Parole 06/12/1998
96-246 CLEV Unlawful Removal Of A Dead Body 05/28/1998 5Y 0M 0D Incarceration
96-246 CLEV Conspiracy To Unlawfully Remove A Dead Body 05/28/1998 10Y 0M 0D Incarceration
96-255 CLEV Injury To A Minor Child (Jeremy) 05/28/1998 LIFE Life
96-255 CLEV Injury To A Minor Child (Tia) 05/28/1998 LIFE Life
96-255 CLEV Injury To A Minor Child (Isaac) 05/28/1998 LIFE Life
96-255 CLEV Injury To A Minor Child (Tranny) 05/28/1998 LIFE Life
96-255 CLEV Injury To A Minor Child (Crystal) 05/28/1998 LIFE Life

The media portrayed Don Gilson as the murderer of Shane Coffman calling Gilson Shane's "killer" but the OSBI interview clearly tells the story of Shane's mother "punishing" the boy while Gilson attempted to revive him.

Supporting Documentation:

Clemency Petition