By G.W. Schulz
While the temperature hovered close to freezing on Dec. 30, 1974, the greater Oklahoma City area celebrated the glow of the holiday season. But just north of the city in the predominantly white suburb of Edmond, two men entered a liquor store on Broadway Avenue intending to rob it.
The events unfolded quickly. One of the men brandished a 22. caliber pistol and aimed it at the two clerks behind the counter. A customer, 18-year-old Belinda Brown, entered the store intending to purchase alcohol with a fake ID. She was only able to glance briefly at the two men for a few seconds and exchange greetings, blissfully unaware of what was occuring.
Then the men reacted, according to police reports, courts records, and the news media.
One of the two clerks, Carolyn Sue Rogers, was on the phone during the robbery. She was shot in the head and killed. Norma Hankins, the second clerk, was left unharmed.
The teen customer who’d walked in moments before, Belinda Brown, was also shot in the head. She survived. Brown later said she couldn’t hear or see anything for a period of time after being shot and had only gotten the smallest glimpse of the perpetrators. After the shootings, the men left the store with $1,000.
After several weeks passed and a statewide hunt occurred, two men were arrested for the crime: our client Glynn Simmons and a co-defendant named Don Roberts. Co-defendant Roberts was eventually released on parole by the state of Oklahoma after serving 33 years. Our client Simmons remains behind bars after 48 years, today held at the Lawton Correctional Facility in southwestern Oklahoma where he’s known as inmate #90572.
The 1975 courtroom prosecution of Don Roberts and Glynn Simmons was engineered almost entirely from the questionable eyewitness testimony of the 18-year-old store customer, Belinda Brown. Simmons and Roberts were ultimately convicted and given the death penalty before their sentences were later amended to life in prison.
The Norwood Law Firm in Tulsa was asked to take on the Simmons case decades later, and what we found was stunning. As you’ll see below, even without a brutal gun injury to the head, people aren’t typically able to recall from mere eyesight a fraction of what they think they can even under the most favorable conditions. You’ll also see crucial new developments in the case since we came aboard.
If you’re accused of a crime you didn’t commit, you’ll need impassioned advocates like us to tell your side of the story – attorneys who can counter the weight of the government and law enforcement and ensure you’re treated fairly. If that happens, contact the Norwood Law Firm for a free consultation at 918-582-6464.
A case full of doubts
The trauma that customer Belinda Brown experienced by being shot during the robbery was crucial to what came later in the case of Glynn Simmons. Prosecutors in Oklahoma City hinged their case almost entirely on Brown’s recollections, which were based on seeing the two men in the liquor store for just two to three seconds.
Contrary to what’s often portrayed in television police shows, there was no physical evidence at all in this case, and there isn’t in many cases like it. Investigators in Edmond never recovered a gun, DNA, fingerprints, footprints, hair fibers, surveillance video, or any such evidence.
Shockingly, in fact, the foundation of this case was so weak from the very beginning, an original prosecutor who helped send Simmons to death row in the first place now doubts the veracity of his own case. In later letters written on Simmons’s behalf, former prosecutor Robert Mildfelt admits that the “evidence was thin” from the start. There were enough holes that the jury could have just as easily acquitted Simmons.
“Your case has troubled me these many years, because of the many questions unanswered by the evidence we had,” Mildfelt wrote. “ … Quite candidly, it was one of the few cases I have been involved in that the verdict a week later could easily have been different.”
Another prosecutor in the case, Dan Murdock, suggested in 2014 to the Oklahoma City news station KFOR that he possibly had similar misgivings about the case. “You go with what you got, and you let a jury decide. You know your feelings and attitudes and opinions on things change over the years. Now looking back on it, there are things Iʼd have done different, sure.”
Then there’s the sister of the clerk who was shot and killed in the liquor store. Her name is Janice Smith, and she not only doubts the strength of the state’s case, Smith believes our client Simmons should be released. The two have exchanged friendly letters.
Liz Thornton, one of the jurors from the original trial who voted to send Simmons to death row, was 22 at the time in 1975 and working at a bible college. She believed that everyone involved, including the police and prosecutors, would tell the truth. Thornton remembers that the defendants looked scared.
Decades later and on camera, however, a host of the reality TV show “Reasonable Doubt” presented Thornton with details about the case she hadn’t previously known. The show devoted an episode to the Simmons case in 2021. Among the details disclosed to juror Thornton was the fact that Belinda Brown had not initially pegged Simmons and Roberts for the crime but instead had identified someone else. Thornton then appears visibly stunned to learn from the host that prosecutor Robert Mildfelt today had serious regrets about the conviction of Simmons.
In light of the new information she’s just been shown, juror Thornton says she no longer believes that Simmons is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. “I do have doubts,” she tells the host.
There’s more. Nine alibi witnesses have said in sworn statements and testimony that Simmons was nowhere near Oklahoma City at the time of the robbery and was, in fact, an entire state away. They say he was in the town of Harvey, Louisiana, where he’d grown up and was known affectionately as “Nubs.”
As a statement of character about Simmons, one of his close friends from Harvey, Jackie Turner, recalled for “Reasonable Doubt” how once when they were younger, Simmons had intervened at his own risk to protect a white man when three black men were beating him during a fight.
Three additional witnesses were ready to testify at Simmons’s most recent hearing on April 18, 2023, at which he was yet again seeking freedom, this time in front of Judge Amy Palumbo of the Oklahoma County District Court. The alibi witnesses say that during the holidays, Simmons played pool and football and shot dice in Harvey where he also celebrated New Year’s Eve.
Simmons himself says it wasn’t until weeks after the robbery that he arrived in Oklahoma City to pursue job opportunities in the area. In fact, Simmons admits there was another reason. It was an incident at an illegal gambling shack in Louisiana that took place during the holidays around the time of the murder in 1974. A man from the shack reportedly told police that Simmons had robbed him, and Simmons believed police were out looking for him. But years later, to Simmons’s dismay, there was no record of such a police search that could be found as a potential additional alibi.
Despite these above facts, Oklahoma appellate judges have steadfastly refused to examine the case and reconsider the outcome. Although the co-defendant, Don Roberts, was let go on parole in 2008, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board hasn’t done the same for our client Simmons after several opportunities. He was denied parole on one occasion even though the board vote was split evenly, two for his release and two against.
Simmons was denied relief for years even though in addition to everything else we’ve cited here so far, there were grave questions about the quality of his legal representation at the 1975 trial, which only lasted three days. His attorney at the time, Henry Floyd, was later disbarred by the Oklahoma Bar Association from practicing law after complaints emerged of gross neglect of his clients.
A tribunal of professional responsibility found, among other things, that “retainer fees were accepted and cases languished and died.” Some cases were not filed, Floyd didn’t respond to key motions, or he didn’t show up for trial or pre-trial conferences. “Claims were compromised as a result of [Floyd’s] conduct and his clients were denied justice,” the Oklahoma Supreme Court later wrote. We believe the questions surrounding Floyd are apparent in his representation of Simmons in 1975.
Out of sight, out of mind
Doubts about the eyewitness testimony of Belinda Brown, meanwhile, begin at St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City where she was sent to recover from the gunshot wound to her head. Police investigators interviewed Brown there a few days after the robbery. Brown had few specifics to share, according to police reports. She says the gunshot wound left her rattled:
“I couldn’t see anything for about three minutes, because I felt that I was under a big electrical shock, and I couldn’t see or hear, [and] I didn’t know what was going on at all.”
From there, inconsistencies begin to add up. Brown says that when she first walked into the store, she saw a car in the parking lot. In later testimony, however, there was no car. She says initially that one of the men had a beard. Then later, there was no beard. The clerk from behind the counter who was left alive, Norma Hankins, said that only one of the men was wearing a hat. Brown says that both men were wearing hats.
Clerk Hankins saw the robbers for far longer and more directly than Brown did who glanced at them for only a few seconds. Yet Hankins could only give the sketch artist vague descriptions. She was also unwilling to confidently pick out anyone from police lineups, and she wouldn’t identify anyone with certainty later at trial. Brown, on the other hand, was confident enough in her memory and eyesight to send two men to death row.
Our client, Simmons, is much shorter and smaller in stature than the perpetrators were described by witnesses to be for the sketch artist and investigators. Even a prosecutor from the original trial who was responsible for making the case against Simmons and Roberts later acknowledged that the descriptions were conflicting.
At the hospital where Brown was recovering, the police interviewers asked if she might be able to recall new details if given time to do so. No, she admitted. Her memory would presumably diminish.
“I think if I waited much longer,” she said, “it would all get jumbled up in my mind, and it wouldn’t be all the same.”
Investigators pressed on with what little they had anyway. Weeks after the hospital interview on Jan. 22, 1975, investigators asked Brown to examine a lineup of 21 potential suspects. One of them, Frederick Lee Brooks, had reportedly been bragging about shooting a white woman in Edmond. Brown identified Brooks from the lineup of 22 pictures.
However, Brown was shown a physical lineup the following day with just four suspects. She failed to pick out Frederick Lee Brooks again. Not only that, police turned up nothing when they subjected Brooks to an interrogation, a polygraph test, and a search of his apartment. Despite Brown’s initial identification of Brooks, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that he’d been in Texas at the time of the robbery.
A PhD psychologist recruited to examine this case on behalf of Simmons points out in a report that our memory of faces greatly diminishes after three weeks. According to his report:
“Approximately three weeks passed between the crime and the first lineup, which means that memory of the perpetrators would already have declined substantially. Most memory experts agree that this kind of delay would dramatically reduce the accuracy of eyewitness identification.”
Despite another setback and little to go on, investigators pushed ahead. Several days later in early February after the unsuccessful initial lineups, Don Roberts and our client Glynn Simmons found themselves in the custody of the Oklahoma City Police Department.
Witness Brown was called in to view yet another lineup. This time, she said “I think” that two new men from the lineup were at the liquor store. According to a report narrative from the Edmond Police Department that lists the suspects from the lineup using numbers instead of names, neither of the two men identified by Brown appear to have been Don Roberts or Glynn Simmons.
That night after the lineup, Brown called an investigator at home to say that the more she thought about the lineup, the more she was certain one of the men in particular had been the one who exchanged greetings with her when Brown walked into the liquor store. This man’s suspect number from the lineup did not appear to be Roberts or Simmons.
The following day, Brown was again presented with a lineup, and again Brown selected the same two men from the previous day. And again, their suspect numbers did not appear to belong to co-defendant Roberts or our client Simmons. When asked by investigators if she was sure about her identification, Brown responded affirmatively. “Yes, those were the two that I saw in the store that night.” One of the two men Brown identified reportedly owned a .22-caliber revolver, the same caliber used in the liquor-store robbery.
In a mystifying twist, an entirely separate report from the Oklahoma City Police Department and not the Edmond police insists that it was Roberts and Simmons who were identified by Brown in the lineups all along. Yet not until the preliminary hearing and trial for Roberts and Simmons does Brown for the first time claim that she had selected them from the lineups and no one else.
These extraordinary discrepancies alone should be enough to unravel the state’s case given how much it relied upon the recollections of Belinda Brown to send our client to death row. Key records about these lineups described above were not turned over to Simmons until 20 years after he was first convicted when a private investigator became involved in the case. Only today is the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office conceding for the first time that the failure to turn over all of the records denied Simmons a fair trial in 1975.
The psychology of (mis)remembering
Even at the time of the 1975 trial, available scientific research questioned the overreliance on eyewitness testimony in criminal investigations and trials. As human beings, we simply don’t recall all of the facts from a given incident that we think we do.
Our firm called upon a PhD psychologist from Texas A&M University, Dr. Curt Carlson, to study the facts of this case and tell us what he knows about decades of scientific inquiry into the strength of eyewitness testimony. Take, for example, the few seconds witness Brown had to glimpse at the suspects in the liquor store. Dr. Carlson’s own research has shown a major difference in recall about clothing details even between three and 10 seconds, let alone faces.
In Carlson’s report to us, he pointed to several phenomena, including the fact that being involved in a stressful event like a robbery is enough on its own to deteriorate our memory. This can be worsened by the presence of more than one perpetrator. A 2006 study found a “dramatically reduced” ability by eyewitnesses to remember details when two perpetrators were present.
There are other problems, says Carlson. Consider the fact that Belinda Brown reportedly suffered from poor eyesight to begin with and required prescription glasses. Not to mention, Brown tragically endured a traumatic brain injury as a result of being shot. Dr. Carlson wrote that considerable research exists on how traumatic brain injuries impact memory and eyewitness identification. One study from 2019 found that people with traumatic brain injuries were “highly likely to falsely identify an innocent suspect” out of a lineup.
It’s also important to point out the innumerable biases in our minds studied by psychologists that affect our judgment-making. While we all would prefer to believe that we do not harbor racial biases, the fact is, in our unconscious mind, we do.
As Dr. Carlson points out, the scientific evidence supporting such biases is abundant. Belinda Brown is white. Our client is black. According to the research, it is simply more difficult for us to perceive faces when they are a different color from our own.
While there are two other witnesses in this case, their recollections and observations are also unreliable for various reasons. Remember that a second clerk was behind the counter who was not shot at the time of the robbery, Norma Hankins. She refused even to attempt an identification from the lineups or in court.
This could be due to the “weapon-focus effect,” says Dr. Carlson. Here, a witness is too distracted by the gun in a perpetrator’s hands to observe and absorb details about the person’s face. It’s possible this is what happened to Hankins.
Johnny Delbrio, a teenager at the time of the robbery, never saw what took place inside the liquor store. But he says that a suspicious car was circling the area. Although he wasn’t able to get a good look at the people inside, Delbrio said that he believed one of them was Don Roberts. He never identified our client Simmons.
“He never saw the driver and also did not get a very good look at the passenger,” Carlson wrote in his report for us.
A second expert on memory and eyewitness identification, Dr. Scott Gronlund of the University of Oklahoma, was recruited by the “Reasonable Doubt” reality show in 2021 to demonstrate for the hosts how strained our memories become in stressful situations.
In an experiment conducted by Dr. Gronlund, three young, white college students were asked to walk down a hallway. As they each did so, a young black male passed by them walking in the other direction as they exchanged greetings. Next, the three students were each brought into a room where two people in an entirely unrelated incident burst through an adjoining door while engaging in a loud and unsettling verbal altercation.
The three young women were not informed that the altercation was merely a dramatization performed by actors. The students were clearly shaken by witnessing the altercation. At this moment, the students were told to observe a lineup of three black males and identify the one they passed in the hallway.
Two refused to make any attempt at an identification saying the trauma of the altercation had polluted their memory of what they recalled from the hallway. The third student made a correct identification from the lineup based on body type and not faces – the young man from the hallway was significantly shorter than the other two in the lineup. The third student admitted that she wouldn’t be confident enough in her memory for it to be the sole piece of evidence in a capital-murder trial.
When asked if he thought that there was any reason to believe the testimony of Belinda Brown in the case of Glynn Simmons, Dr. Gronlund told “Reasonable Doubt” simply no.
“As our experiment showed, this kind of situation does not lend itself to getting a good identification,” he said. “The evidence here is very poor.”
Why does this happen so often?
So why do investigators and prosecutors so steadfastly cling to their conclusions when the evidence doesn’t point in their favor? One explanation in this case could be public pressure at the time of the robbery.
As the days and weeks passed after the robbery and murder in 1975, local news outlets at the time publicized the fact that police had little to go on and the case was growing cold. The Daily Oklahoman newspaper declared that the investigation had hit a “dead end.”
One Edmond police detective who was involved in the case recalled the atmosphere around it for the Oklahoma City TV news station KFOR in 2003. “It was a big deal because Edmond had only recently begun to have any homicides. I had helped process the crime scene myself, and there was little if any usable evidence came from the crime scene.”
It’s not uncommon in such situations when pressure is mounting for police to nab the wrong suspect out of desperation.
Even today, Don Roberts and Glynn Simmons say they did not know one another in 1975 and mostly don’t now. Our client Simmons can only pray that a judge will scrutinize his case more closely. Among other things that have happened in the decades since he’s been locked up, his mother passed away.
His sister and niece told the hosts of “Reasonable Doubt” that they would continue to fight. Simmons grew up one of 13 kids, and his dad died when he was 11. Niece Kendra Brewster says that at times, the circumstances of Glynn’s case are frustrating for the family. A major development sometimes occurs in the case, and the family becomes hopeful. But then those hopes are dashed when parole is denied or an appeal is rejected. Simmons’s sister, Margo Herman, told “Reasonable Doubt”:
“It’s 45 years of his life not being there with the family to celebrate birthdays and weddings and holidays and Christmas. It hurts. I can’t [give up]. There’s just something in me, I can’t.”
On April 18, 2023, a judge assigned to the Simmons case, Amy Palumbo of the Oklahoma County District Court in Oklahoma City, was scheduled to take a fresh look at the evidence. After that, Palumbo would decide whether to vacate the original sentence and free Simmons outright or demand a new trial based on constitutional errors from the first trial in 1975.
We’re asking Judge Palumbo to declare Glynn Simmons “actually innocent” of the crime and to let him go without a new trial.
In a surprise announcement at a press conference just days before the hearing, Oklahoma County’s top prosecutor, Vicki Behenna, declared that she was asking Judge Palumbo to vacate Simmons’s sentence and proceed with a new trial. She stopped short of saying that Simmons was innocent, however. Behenna simply admitted that key documents about the suspect lineups were withheld from Simmons during his original trial in 1975, and she wanted to retry him in light of the revelation.
“We don’t think that there is any new evidence that’s been presented to us that would show that Mr. Simmons is factually innocent of this murder,” Behenna said at the press conference.
This isn’t the first time the Norwood Law Firm has been called upon to take a wrongful-conviction case, and we don’t give up easily. In 2019, we helped secure the release of Corey Atchison who was kept locked up for 28 years on the basis of one 17-year-old’s witness testimony. A Tulsa County district judge declared Atchison “actually innocent” in that case and called his conviction a “fundamental miscarriage of justice.”