Matter of Life and Death: Mark Henricksen Endures the Heavy Burden of Capitol Cases

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Oklahoma City trial attorney Mark Henricksen was making a phone call from his bedroom on a Thursday night in 2004 when he heard gunshots. Before he could investigate, the door to his room swung open and he was shot three times: once in his stomach and in each of his legs.

For the next 13 hours, the invaders held him hostage, along with a friend at his home, whom they had also shot and then hog-tied. At one point, Henricksen handed over the few hundred dollars in his wallet and two of the shooters left, presumably to buy drugs, before returning. “They were certainly nicer after they got their fix than they had been previously,” he recalls.

The next day, they brought him to the bank to make a withdrawal, but instead of giving them the money right then and there, Henricksen talked his kidnappers into meeting him at a drop-off point in exchange for setting his friend—and his dog—free. But he sneaked a call to police and drove to the site with an officer hunkered down in the back seat. All four assailants were captured, arrested and prosecuted. To this day, he doesn’t know why they targeted him.

Characteristically, he managed to keep his composure throughout the ordeal. “I persuaded them that … I was going to buy my freedom. I was not being truthful about that, but I think you’re entitled to lie under those circumstances.”

Henricksen’s recollection, told with minimal emotion and drama, gives a glimpse of the self-restraint for which he is known when pursuing complex civil and criminal trials and appeals in state and federal courts. To date, the senior partner at Henricksen & Henricksen has served as lead counsel for nearly 30 clients in various stages of capital murder cases, from jury trials and direct appeals for federal habeas corpus and clemency. Understated and low-key, 69-year-old Henricksen has a wry, sometimes dark, sense of humor, that can sneak up on you.

“He is a brilliant trial lawyer, just an indefatigable advocate,” says Randall Coyne, longtime friend and co-counsel. “Mark will give you the best shot at exoneration that you can possibly have. If you’re not guilty, he’ll be able to demonstrate that or inject enough reasonable doubt in the case. And if you are, he’s not going to lie or cheat, but he can be relied upon to do his best to soften the punishment, that’s for sure.”

HENRICKSEN, WHO HAILS FROM RURAL EL RENO—his dad worked for the railroad, his mom for the telephone company, both as low-level union officials—can’t remember a time he didn’t want to be a lawyer. But he can’t pinpoint why.

He does, however, know why he chose trial law. “I think we like things that are easier for us than others, and taking care of complicated transactions and the details—I don’t find that appealing,” he says. “For a lengthy cross-examination, you may have three or four or five days of preparation to try to plan it, but when you actually go to court and match wits with an opponent, then that’s kind of exciting.”

After earning his J.D. in 1977, Henricksen joined a three-man firm in his hometown, and then went solo in 1987. He always wanted to be his own boss, he says, and couldn’t fancy himself as a worker bee at a big law firm. Back then, he took on any case that would pay and, he admits, he thought he knew everything. “Now I think I don’t know anything, and 45 years in the trenches have certainly not increased my confidence about the likelihood of a good outcome. I can just do the best that I can do. I find the law to be a very uncertain art.”

Despite the frequent assumption that he and his law partner, Lanita Henricksen, are married, she is actually the former wife of Henricksen’s very distant cousin. “My great-grandfather was the eldest of 21 children,” he says. “So if you go over to the cemetery, there are thousands of tombstones, but dozens of them have Henricksen on them. It’s a rather common name.”

Early in his career, Henricksen primarily represented the oil industry, including Santa Fe Minerals, during the Oklahoma boom, handling more than 100 jury trials, many involving land disputes. The compensation was solid. But, he says, “I would go from trial to trial with basically the same team of witnesses, both employees and experts, and it wasn’t all that interesting.”

Then the oil bubble burst. “Overnight they just pulled the plug, and that ended my oil and gas business, and I had to look for something else to do,” he says. “I got into the murder business kind of by accident.”

As a favor to a lawyer friend overwhelmed by a messy divorce, Henricksen agreed in the early 1990s to assist with the controversial retrial of Robert Grady Johnson, who had been convicted of killing four people with his lover Jay Wesley Neill during a bank robbery in the small town of Geronimo. The pair had been tried together and both given the death penalty for felony murder, although it was believed that while Johnson had bought the weapons, he wasn’t present when the killings occurred, says Henricksen. “Neill went to the bank and held three tellers hostage and slit their throats and largely amputated their heads, and then a customer came in and he shot him [to death].”

Opinions surrounding the gruesome killings were strong, and hostile. Henricksen and his co-counsel received numerous anonymous calls in their hotel rooms in the middle of the night, most threatening and including slurs about the client’s sexual orientation.

Moments after the jury reduced the death sentence to life without parole, Henricksen congratulated the district attorney on his victory. “He looked kind of huffy and said, ‘I would’ve pled to this before we spent a month in trial.’ I didn’t respond. That was the best we were going to get, but it was better than what they were offering.”

By the time Henricksen shouldered his first habeas corpus case, he had been serving as general counsel to the ACLU of Oklahoma, handling several “semi-high-profile” civil rights cases in federal court, all dealing with free speech. But when U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma Judge Lee West called and asked him to serve on a habeas panel, he balked.

“I’ve never done a habeas case in my life,” he told the judge, who quickly replied, “No one else has, either.”

Before long, Henricksen and his law partner were appointed to represent William Mayes, convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in 1990 in the death of Mayes’ lover’s husband, who had been beaten, stabbed and shot. Despite his lack of habeas experience, Henricksen was able to get the death sentence vacated after arguing the ineffectiveness of the client’s previous attorney. “We secured the life sentence for Mr. Mayes and, to my knowledge, he’s still alive. He used to send me Christmas cards.”

Henricksen refers to capital cases, regardless of guilt or innocence, as a heavy burden.

“Either way, they are human beings. They typically have a history of emotional, physical, sexual abuse; poverty, drug and substance abuse, et cetera. They rarely just spring into homicides from middle-class, solid backgrounds,” he says. “Of the several dozen that I’ve handled, most of them, I’ve thought, ‘You know, if they weren’t in prison, if they wanted to come by my office or my house, it wouldn’t scare me at all.’ Generally, they don’t seem all that different from anybody else.”


—Mark Henricksen on 45 years in law

Over the years, Henricksen has drawn accolades for his defense work, including two awards from the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the prestigious Angie Debo Lifetime Achievement Award from the ACLU of Oklahoma, and the Justice Thurgood Marshall Outstanding Appellate Advocacy award (twice).

HENRICKSEN DOESN’T BELIEVE IN THE DEATH PENALTY. “I don’t think the government has any business killing anybody,” he says. “I am not religious, but I sort of subscribe to the Catholic Church view on that unless the execution is necessary to protect human life. I just don’t think that it ever should be imposed, ever.”

Of course, innocent people have been put to death, he points out. But there’s also a more practical reason to oppose capital punishment: It costs taxpayers far less to hold someone in prison for 50 years than to prosecute and defend a death penalty case. “That argument does seem to resonate with people who are otherwise thinking, ‘Go ahead and hang them,’” Henricksen says. “Many people are surprised to learn that reality.”

“It’s like that old saying,” Coyne says of his friend. “He and I ‘protect the Lord’s children who have fallen short of perfection from the wrath of those who think they’ve achieved it.’ That kind of sums up what Mark does for a living, at least on the capital side of things.”

Henricksen isn’t comfortable describing his own courtroom style. “It doesn’t really matter what I think. Only matters what the audience thinks. But no, I’m not a showboater.”

He is open about putting careful thought into each cross-examination. “I am exceedingly scripted,” he says. “If the answer is X, then I do Y. If the answer is Z, then I do A. I usually have references to many prior out-of-court statements that can be used in the event that an in-court statement is inconsistent. I am not one of those flamboyant ones that just goes up there and smiles and grins and expects it’s going to turn out all right. I spend a lot of time out of court getting ready for a few minutes in court.”

He adds, “I’m never ugly, unless the witness [is] obstinate or evasive. I never try to be discourteous or pushy unless the witness first gives me permission to be discourteous.”

Henricksen’s clients benefit from another finely-tuned character trait. “I have developed non-judging into an art form,” he says. “When they have me, they have a judgment-free zone, and even if I have a personal reaction to whatever it is I’m hearing, I do not let that show.”

To balance the intensity of his practice, Henricksen works out at the gym and reads from his large private library collection; walks the neighborhood every night with Dante, his 5-year-old Chinese Crested; and travels the world as a way to learn more about it. The bullet in his left leg, placed there by one of his kidnappers nearly two decades ago, worked its way to the surface within a few days and was quickly removed by a doctor; the other two are still lodged in his body.

So what keeps him going in his law practice? “What does one enjoy about air or water? It’s just been part of my ether for 45 years. And I like it a great deal.”

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