Pubdate: Sun, 03 May 2015
Source: Oklahoman, The (OK)
Copyright: 2015 The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
Author: Jennifer Palmer


With State Prisons Over Capacity, Some Are Calling for Reversal of Harsh Law

Kevin Ott drew his first strike when he was arrested for a small bag 
of methamphetamine in his pocket in 1993.

A year later, authorities caught the self-described country boy from 
Okemah with marijuana plants growing at his home. That strike got him 
15 months in prison.

Still in his early 30's, Ott took strike three in 1996 when police 
found 3 1/2 ounces of meth in his home, enough for prosecutors to 
charge him with trafficking. His punishment: life without parole.

Today, Ott is one of about 50 Oklahoma inmates serving a life 
sentence for non-violent felony drug convictions.

I have lived the last 19 years knowing I will die in prison for a 
nonviolent crime," Ott, now 52, wrote in March from the Oklahoma 
State Reformatory in Granite, a state prison that houses older 
inmates. "I saw on the news last night where a man killed two women 
and their unborn children and will only do 25 years in prison. Where 
is the justice?"

Passed in 1989, when the war on drugs was raging, Oklahoma's 
three-strikes drug law is one of the toughest in the nation. Two 
prior convictions for any drug felony - even possession of small 
amounts of marijuana - followed by a drug trafficking conviction, 
invokes a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

But at a time when Oklahoma's prisons are bursting at the seams and 
draining state coffers, some say it's time to revisit a law that 
sends nonviolent offenders to prison for life with no hope of getting out.

"Oklahoma desperately needs sentencing reform because we have a lot 
of incredibly draconian sentences that we don't actually realize any 
value out of," said Rep. Cory Williams, D-Stillwater, who is pushing 
for legislation that would cut the mandatory minimum in such cases to 20 years.

For this story, The Oklahoman requested information from the state 
Corrections Department on all prisoners serving life without parole 
for a drug offense. The department responded with 55 names.

Those imprisoned include 49 men and six women.

Thirty-two are black, 21 are white and two are Hispanic.

The oldest is K.O. Cooper, a 74-year-old grandfather from Enid who is 
nearly blind.

The youngest is Qualon Hawkins, 31, who was found guilty of killing a 
man outside an Oklahoma City convenience store in 2006 and is one of 
only three convicted of violent crimes. Nine months later, a jury 
also found him guilty of drug trafficking.

The 55 convictions come from 21 counties. The longest behind prison 
walls is Leland Dodd; he has served almost 25 years for conspiracy to 
buy marijuana in a reverse-sting operation. Others are newly lifers, 
including Seth Speed, 34, of Lawton, who began his sentence earlier this year.

The Oklahoman reached out by mail in March to all 54 inmates then 
serving life without parole, seeking information about their life 
before prison, involvement with drugs and journey through the 
criminal justice system. Twenty-seven responded with letters. A few 
asked relatives to contact the newspaper to relay their comments. The 
Oklahoman did not reach one inmate whose name the Department of 
Corrections provided after a reporter sent the letters. In addition, 
prison officials initially failed to deliver the letters to the six 
women serving life sentences for drug convictions. Prison officials 
blamed it on an oversight and sought to deliver letters to them last 
week, but responses weren't received in time for this story.

Like many inmates who did respond to The Oklahoman, Bernard Mantzke, 
of Lawton, said he feels forgotten.

"For too many years, little thought has been given to those of us 
behind bars," wrote Mantzke, who began his life sentence in 2006. 
"When President Reagan waged his war on drugs, the public stood 
behind it. Well, times have changed."

'Like cancer'

Jamel Hall echoed a common theme among the inmates who wrote when he 
talked about the unjustness of being handed the harshest possible 
sentence short of execution, when many murderers and violent 
criminals serve less time.

"The punishment (is) not fitting the crime," wrote Hall, whose third 
strike came when he was convicted in Tulsa County in 1998 of 
trafficking crack cocaine. "There is a heavy hand of injustice that 
is prevalent in the South and ... is killing minorities off with a 
death by incarceration."

Though many people assume those serving life without parole under the 
three-strikes law are major drug dealers or kingpins, rarely is that 
the case, said Brady Henderson, legal director for ACLU Oklahoma, a 
branch of the national human rights organization.

Most of the people caught under this law are not violent, callous 
cartel members profiting off people's addictions and miseries as the 
public likely assumes, Henderson said. Instead, they often have 
addiction issues that weren't addressed after their first two strikes.

"You've got people who, in many cases, made very stupid mistakes and 
didn't deal with a problem they should have dealt with," Henderson 
said. "They are not the things I think we want to think they are."

Many offenders wrote about struggling with addiction.

Mike Hackler, 62, of McAlester, has been serving life without parole 
since 2006. "I was not a big drug dealer," he wrote. "I was a drug 
addict. I have done drugs most of my life. I grew up in a drug 
culture. All my friends did drugs and to pay for drugs you sometimes 
have to sell small amounts."

Another lifer, Hall, 39, writes: "I have a drug problem, a very real 
illness like cancer."

Other three-strikes offenders described the poverty that led them to 
drugs. Anthony C. Marshall Sr. wrote about his family, including his 
five children. "Me and my wife worked but (it was) never enough money 
to take care of five kids," he said. "I took matters in my own hands 
as a man should, just in the most stupid way."

Cooper, the oldest three-strikes offender, described becoming 
involved in drugs after retirement to support his children and grandchildren.

"My family grew so fast and I was not about to let any of them go 
without," he wrote. "I do not think or feel my way of supporting them 
was right, but I do feel it was best. My family came first."

Cooper has been serving life without parole since 2012; his prior 
convictions resulted from undercover drug buys by the Enid Police 
Department in November and December 1988.

War on drugs

The Oklahoma Legislature passed the three-strikes law in 1987, at a 
time when the nation was trending toward stiffer penalties for 
nonviolent drug crimes. It immediately found proponents - and critics.

In an article published in The Oklahoman on Feb. 1, 1991, prosecutors 
described the first time a drug offender was sentenced to life 
without parole as "a landmark case for Oklahoma" that sends a strong 
message to drug dealers.

But the next day, Oklahoma County's public defender, Bob Ravitz, 
blasted the new law.

"Punishment on this crime is barbaric," he was quoted as saying. 
"Even in a murder case, you have an option. In this type of drug case 
that is no longer the situation, and that's ridiculous."

That defendant in that first case, Archie Hill, died in 1997. But 
Dodd, the longest serving inmate, was sentenced to life without 
parole the same year. He's still behind bars 24 years later for conspiracy.

The letters, Dodd, 61, wrote were the shortest of any of the 
three-strikes offenders who corresponded with The Oklahoman. But his 
case is considered one of the most egregious, by rights activists. He 
was arrested in an undercover buy with a police officer posing as a 
seller - and Dodd's role was financing the deal. On appeal, he argued 
he was coerced into buying a larger quantity than intended and that 
he never took possession of the marijuana before the arrest.

His prior convictions include drug felonies dating to 1978, including 
possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and simple 
possession of marijuana.

While Dodd went to trial, three coconspirators accepted plea deals. 
Two received probation. The third received 15 years and discharged 
from prison over a decade ago.

Dodd was named the Oklahoma offender most deserving of clemency by 
The Clemency Report, a national advocacy organization run by Dennis 
Cauchon, a former USA Today reporter.

Cauchon said Oklahoma has a moral obligation to have a functioning 
clemency system to correct injustices like Dodd's. Because these 
offenders aren't eligible for parole, they only go before the state 
Pardon and Parole Board if they apply for commutation. Even if the 
board recommends commuting their sentence, the final decision is left 
to the governor.

"Oklahoma elected officials and residents like to pretend that Leland 
doesn't exist, that his case is not an injustice that reflects poorly 
on the state's moral character," Cauchon writes in The Clemency Report.

Dodd has applied for commutation and the board is expected to 
consider his request next month.

Meanwhile, Dodd has lost contact with all his family and friends. In 
his most recent prison photo, his face is framed by a bald head and 
an unruly, gray beard. His teeth are in such bad condition he takes 
medications to be able to eat.

"I don't need a lawyer. They are crooks," Dodd wrote. "I need a 
doctor and a dentist."

'Keep me out of jail'

The number of three-strike inmates in state prisons continues to 
rise, from 34 in 2008 to the current 55.

In 2011, Connie Johnson, then a state senator, proposed a bill that 
would not only have done away with the mandatory life without parole 
sentence for drug trafficking after two convictions, but also would 
have required the parole board to immediately review the cases of all 
the offenders serving time under the statute.

At the time, she voiced support for Larry Yarbrough, 65, who is 
serving life without parole for an ounce of cocaine and three 
marijuana cigarettes. He's a model prisoner who successfully trained 
dogs through a prison program, she said.

Yarbrough has twice been recommended for clemency by the board, but 
both times, the governor rejected their recommendations. Yarbrough 
now has served more than 18 years.

Johnson's bill was never heard.

But with the prison population now at 111 percent of capacity and the 
state struggling to find money to finance the swollen system, 
lawmakers are trying again.

House Bill 1574, proposed by Williams, the Stillwater representative, 
and Sen. AJ Griffin, RGuthrie, would give judges the option to 
sentence drug traffickers with two prior drug convictions anywhere 
from 20 years to life without parole. It will not apply to offenders 
facing a third drug-trafficking conviction. Last year's version of 
the bill died in committee. This year's bill passed the legislature 
last week, but still must be signed by Gov. Mary Fallin.

Williams cites the case of Sheilia Devereux, a Tulsa woman who was 
serving life under the three-strikes law until 2011, when a judge 
altered her sentence to the six years she had served. After twice 
receiving probation for drug possession charges, a judge had 
sentenced the mother of three to life without parole when she was 
caught with six grams of crack cocaine.

Devereux's case involved several Tulsa police officers who were later 
indicted in a corruption scandal. The district attorney agreed to her 
sentence being modified on the grounds that her attorney was ineffective.

Edmond attorney Debra Hampton said many of her clients facing a first 
or second drug charge will say "just keep me out of jail" and accept 
plea agreements for probation or a suspended sentence. They don't 
realize those prior convictions can come back to haunt them in a big 
way, she said.

"Drug trafficking" is defined broadly under Oklahoma law and includes 
possessing, distributing, transporting or manufacturing a certain 
quantity, such as 25 pounds of marijuana, 20 grams of 
methamphetamine, 28 grams of cocaine or five grams of crack cocaine. 
Prosecutors often charge defendants with trafficking based solely on 
the amount of drugs found.

Few are violent

Human rights advocates say nonviolent offenders can be monitored in 
the community rather than incarcerated at a cost to taxpayers of up 
to $30,000 a year for each inmate.

In Dodd's case, though his conviction for conspiracy was upheld on 
appeal, two of the dissenting judges wrote that his sentence bordered 
on cruel when compared to violent criminals.

"Other horrible, violent crimes such as rape, second-degree murder, 
and armed robbery are not punished as severely as Mr. Dodd was for 
conspiracy to traffic marijuana (a nonviolent crime.) Such a severe 
and grossly disproportionate punishment for an inchoate crime such as 
conspiracy is, at a minimum, unusual and indeed, under the facts of 
this case, may be considered cruel," the judges wrote in their 1994 opinion.

Another lifer, Daniel Mosley, got clean through a drug treatment 
program and was attending graduate school to become a drug and 
alcohol counselor following his arrest, but prior to his sentencing.

"Each incarceration took me further away from my career, my friends, 
and family and deeper into addiction," Mosley wrote from prison. "I 
never could get into recovery while in prison...and believe me, the 
threat of prison or even death will not deter an alcoholic and/or 
addict from drinking or using until they get to the root cause of the problem."

Mosley wrote about being abused as a child and developing an 
addiction to drugs. In 2008, he was leaving a drug dealer's house in 
Norman when drug task force officers conducting a raid stopped him in 
the driveway. Officers searched Mosley's pockets and found 4 ounces 
of meth, records show.

Because Mosley had a series of previous minor drug arrests and 
convictions, he was charged as a three-strikes offender.

Still, a parole officer recommended he be supervised in the community 
due to his recovery efforts and progress toward an advanced degree.

"The judge was against this 'mandatory' sentence and showed mercy," 
Mosley wrote, but because of the law, he received life without parole 
anyway. He's been in prison five years. His attorney has filed a 
petition in Cleveland County District Court to have his sentenced reviewed.

Just three of the 55 three-strikes offenders have a conviction for a 
violent crime on their Oklahoma record. Yet, all three received a 
stiffer sentence for drug trafficking than the violent crime.

For instance, Pamela D. Hutcheson served two years in prison for rape 
by instrumentation in Tulsa County. But it was a 2005 drug conviction 
that got her life without parole.

A Tulsa jury also convicted Hawkins, the youngest three-strikes drug 
offender at 31, of murder. Hawkins could become eligible for parole 
on the murder charge, but not the drug charge.

Darius Payne, the third inmate convicted of a violent crime, got 12 
years for robbery by fear, but two life sentences - one without 
parole - on drug charges.

'I'm done'

Many people - even prosecutors - draw a distinction between marijuana 
and harder drugs such as methamphetamine or crack cocaine.

A police officer chased a loose pit bull onto Richard Dopp's property 
in Muskogee in 1996. There, the officer discovered seven marijuana 
plants growing in the yard, some towering as high as seven feet. The 
officer got a search warrant and also found several bags of marijuana 
inside the house.

Dopp had two prior convictions for marijuana possession and was 
charged under the three-strikes law.

At trial, jurors determined he was guilty but were hesitant to give 
him a verdict that would mean a mandatory sentence of life without 
parole. They even attempted to scratch "life without parole" from 
jury instructions and submit it to the judge with a handwritten 
sentence of 30 years instead.

But the Ottawa County judge's hands were tied. Dopp received life 
without parole.

"I did think it was unfair at the time because that's all they found 
there was marijuana. They didn't find any hard drugs," said 
62-year-old Deborah Jo Bussey, who was one of the jurors on Dopp's 1998 case.

 From prison, Dopp writes that he has since given up the drug that 
ruined his life.

"I quit smoking pot in November '98. The high just made me dwell on 
the fact that pot is why I'm locked up and not able to raise my son," 
he said. "I'm done with it, even if they legalize it."

Another marijuana offender, William Dufries, was driving through 
Oklahoma from Atlanta when he was pulled over by a state trooper in 
2003 for driving eight miles over the speed limit with a broken tail 
light. Inside his recreational vehicle, troopers discovered 67 pounds 
of marijuana.

Dufries, 57, whose story was detailed in a 2013 ACLU report titled "A 
Living Death," said he got involved in transporting marijuana to 
cover the cost of his health care after being diagnosed with lung 
cancer while uninsured. Dufries admits it was a bad decision.

Because he had prior convictions for conspiracy to distribute cocaine 
in 1988 and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute in 
1996, he was found guilty under the state three-strikes drug 
trafficking law. Dufries said he rejected a plea deal for 40 years 
because his public defender incorrectly calculated his parole 
eligibility at 36.4 years instead of 13.3 years.

He also thought "no jury in their right mind would give a 
life-without-parole sentence for a nonviolent marijuana offense," he 
is quoted as saying in the ACLU report. But the jury had no choice.


One of the most convincing arguments to amend the three-strikes law 
is cost savings, said Henderson, of the ACLU. The promise that was 
made in the 1980s and 1990s when tough drug laws were enacted has 
been unfulfilled - and the result is overcrowded prisons that are too costly.

Fiscal conservatives, not typically sympathetic to prisoners, are 
realizing the policy is bankrupting the state, he said. The agency 
has a budget of $583 million for the current year, one of the largest 
of any state agency.

"These laws are literally crushing our social structure under the 
weight of our own armor. And that's an incredibly dangerous thing," 
Henderson said.

And it's not just the direct cost, but also the ripple effect it 
causes to prisoners' families and the absence of a positive economic 
impact these prisoners could be making outside prison walls, he said.

In some cases, prosecutors say, the law works against them.

Some juries refuse to convict a drug offender knowing the only 
punishment they can choose is life without parole, they say. That's 
why district attorneys support allowing a range of punishment in such 
cases, like HB 1574 will allow, said Chris Ross, a district attorney 
for Pontotoc, Hughes and Seminole counties and president of the state 
District Attorneys Council.

When a law covers a wide range of crimes and criminal histories, 
having just one punishment isn't the best solution, Ross said.

Many of the incarcerated three-strikes offenders have voiced hope 
that HB 1574 will pass and alter their sentence. While not 
retroactive, some offenders still hope the bill could give them 
grounds to appeal their convictions or have their sentences modified, they say.

Everything, but ...

Ott grew up in Oklahoma and Arkansas and liked to hunt, fish and 
target practice, things he's missed since he began life behind bars in 1997.

In his letter, Ott described his path from a typical, blue-collar 
worker, to being laid off after a hernia surgery, to finding that 
unemployment didn't make ends meet. He turned to selling meth for a 
little extra money.

"I never claimed to be an angel," he said. But his punishment - which 
he describes as a slow death sentence - doesn't fit the crime, he wrote.

"I am just an average ordinary working man who has made some very bad 
decisions," Ott said. "I really don't think I should die in prison 
for having a substance abuse problem."

After Ott's earlier drug convictions, his mother, Betty Chism, begged 
authorities to send her son to rehab. She even offered to pay. 
Ironically, he's now ineligible for drug treatment because of his 
life sentence.

Ott recognizes the ways his choices have hurt his family, and has 
paid dearly. His youngest sister died in a car accident while driving 
to visit him in prison.

Through an appearance on the documentary "The House I Live In" and 
sales of the leather goods he has created in prison, Ott has gained a 
diverse following of supporters. His biggest, though, is his mother, 
who works tirelessly to promote Ott's work, attends rallies to end 
mandatory minimum sentencing and makes the 2 1/2-hour trek from 
Norman to visit her son when she can.

"I've got letters out the wazoo. I have a T-shirt that says 'Free 
Kevin Ott.' I have everything but my son," Chism said.
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