On the morning of December 7, 2004, the body of 35-year-old Gregory Leon Clark was found in the front yard of his home about five miles south of Boynton, Oklahoma.
An autopsy showed that Clark had been shot once in each arm, his head had been crushed with bricks and his throat slashed. The time of death was believed to be between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.
Later than day, Muskogee County Sheriff’s detectives questioned 30-year-old Clinton Potts after Clark’s sister said Potts had threatened to kill Clark because Potts suspected Clark—his friend of several years—had an affair with Potts’ girlfriend.
Potts denied involvement in the crime. The investigation then went cold until the fall of 2007 when Potts was arrested in neighboring McIntosh County on charges of possession of stolen farm equipment.
Peter Williams shared a jail cell with Potts after being arrested for failing to pay fines. Williams told detectives that Potts claimed that he had paid another man, Jerry Pippin, $1,500 to kill Clark.
In November 2007, Pippin and Potts were charged with first-degree murder in Clark’s death and the Muskogee County District Attorney’s office said it would seek the death penalty.
In February 2009, prosecutors dismissed the charges against Pippin prior to trial when a woman told authorities that he had spent the night with her and her son before leaving early in the morning for a court appearance in Tulsa—nearly 50 miles from the scene of the murder. A judge confirmed that Pippin was at the courthouse for a 9 a.m. appearance.
Pippin’s lawyer noted, “Whoever did this killing, which was a knock-down, drag-out — that person would have had cuts and scratches all over him. You couldn’t do all that and get cleaned up and get to court in Tulsa.”
Potts went on trial in July 2009 in Muskogee County Criminal Court. No physical or forensic evidence linked Potts to the murder. Eddie Ellis, an acquaintance of Potts, testified that he was in a truck with Potts some time after the murder and when they drove by the scene of the crime, Potts claimed he had killed Clark.
Ellis testified Potts said he shot Clark in the arms and beat him with a tire tool. Later, when they were loading the truck, Potts told Ellis not to throw a tire tool away because it was evidence, and Potts wanted to dispose of it himself, Ellis testified.
Ellis also testified Potts told him he had a pair of shoes he needed to get rid of that were in the back of a trailer where Ellis was staying.
Potts’ attorney noted during cross-examination that Ellis had not mentioned Potts’ alleged comments during a preliminary hearing and that Ellis was facing a pending arson charge. Ellis denied that he expected favorable treatment from prosecutors in exchange for his testimony and added, “I’m not afraid of him personally, but afraid of what he can do.”
Clark’s sister testified that Potts’ girlfriend, Wendy Vogt, had spent a night in Clark’s home after quarreling with Potts over money. Although Vogt only stayed one night, Potts suspected she had an affair with Clark, the sister testified. From then on, she said, Clark kept a rifle with him wherever he went.
Peter Williams testified that Potts had admitted the killing to him while they were in a jail cell together. Williams denied that he had received any favorable treatment as a result of his testimony.
Potts testified in his own defense and denied that he killed Clark, saying he was with Vogt at home at the time of the crime. Potts admitted he had made threats to kill him, but only because he believed Clark had sold methamphetamine to Vogt and because Clark had used Potts’ truck to transport chemicals used to make methamphetamine. Some of the chemicals had spilled on the front seat and because the odor was so foul, Potts had burned the truck.
On August 3, 2009, the jury returned a guilty verdict, but declined to impose the death penalty and recommended that Potts be sentenced to life in prison without parole. In December 2009, the judge adopted the jury’s sentencing recommendation.
On appeal, Potts’ attorney requested an evidentiary hearing on claims that the prosecution had failed to disclose evidence that Williams had gotten favorable treatment in return for his testimony and that Potts’ lawyer had failed to investigate several witnesses who could have provided an alibi for Potts.
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case for a hearing on Potts’ claims. At the hearing, the prosecution conceded that Williams had been released from jail in return for his testimony and that this had not been disclosed to the defense. The evidence came to light after an Oklahoma Department of Corrections probation officer complained that he had filed to revoke Williams’ probation for failure to pay fines, but nothing was done. And when no action was taken, the probation officer complained that Williams had received preferential treatment because he testified as a prosecution witness against Potts.
In response to the allegation, First Assistant District Attorney Jeff Sheridan searched the Potts case file and discovered a note signed by former Muskogee County Assistant District Attorney James Walters that suggested the probation officer was correct.
The prosecutor who tried the case against Potts, Farley Ward, said he was not aware of the note during trial. After Sheridan found the note, he informed Potts’ appellate attorneys and the judge. In addition, Potts’ attorney admitted at the hearing that he had failed to interview or pursue alibi witnesses.
The trial judge ruled that Potts’ constitutional right to a fair trial had been violated. In July 2011, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeal affirmed the trial judge, vacated Potts’ conviction, and ordered a new trial. On July 5, 2012, the prosecution dismissed the charge.
Potts was released in July 2012. In September 2013, he was arrested on charges of assault with a deadly weapon, vehicle theft and narcotics offenses.
In March 2014, the Oklahoma State Bar Association filed complaints with the Oklahoma Supreme Court against Potts's trial attorney, Rex Earl Starr, and against the prosecutor, Farley Ward, who had since been elected District Attorney of District 18, which comprises Haskell and Pittsburg Counties. The complaint against Farley alleged he failed to disclose exculpatory evidence and the complaint against Starr alleged he failed to investigate the defense.
In June 2015, the Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed the complaints against Starr and Ward and imposed no discipline.
– Maurice Possley