“We were thinking this can’t be right,” Sharp recalled. “What was going on behind the scenes to even get her a chance to talk to the parole board? We thought [at the time of the 2008 trial] that we had eight years before we had to relive this, and all of a sudden, we had to relive everything again.”
Trying to understand what was going on, Sharp phoned Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater. The prosecutor, equally bewildered, promised to look into the matter.
What Prater said he subsequently found was a state Pardon and Parole Board routinely conducting secretive parole hearings on inmates, a number of whom were not even eligible for early release. The D.A. points to 51 instances over the past two and a half years in which the board secretly considered early release of inmates, five of whom were statutorily required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The prosecutor maintains that the board violated state open meetings laws, and he is considering filing charges against some board members.
Parole or commutation?
The allegations, made by Prater in a scorching Aug. 8 letter to Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Director Terry Jenks, have ignited a political firestorm. Jenks and board Chairwoman Lynnell Harkins said that although they believe the panel has complied with the Open Meetings Act and has the authority to bring offenders up for early release, they placed a temporary halt to the early consideration process. The board also requested an opinion from Attorney General Scott Pruitt on whether it can place inmates under the 85-percent rule on the docket for early consideration.
Gov. Mary Fallin also asked Pruitt to review the matter, even though her chief of staff, Denise Northrup, later told The Oklahoman that the five-member Pardon and Parole Board had recommended sentence commutations — not paroles — that hadn’t violated law.
Her contention is supported by Jenks. “There have been some hearings where the board has considered commutation for a couple of those offenders,” he said, “but none for parole.”
Prater rejects that notion. His office reviewed board agendas and found no mention of commutation dockets. Moreover, the D.A. has said the position of the board means either that board members were considering commutations without adequate public notice, or they were considering commutations under the guise of parole dockets.
“For the sake of argument, if the position of the board is that ‘commutation’ is not addressed, limited or restricted [by statute], their position is without support or legal merit,” Prater wrote. “It would be an act of unimaginable arrogance and dishonesty for the board to believe that they could do indirectly what they are prohibited from doing directly.”
At any rate, the D.A. contends that the parole board has “no authority to pardon, commute or otherwise modify an inmate’s sentence that was subject to a statutory restriction on early release.” Prater’s letter notes that even the board’s own administrative rules state that an offender may be placed a docket early only “so long as the offender is not subject to any mandatory terms.”
For Sharp, whose phone call to the D.A.’s office spurred the controversy, the whole parole-versus-commutation argument seems like semantics. A commutation reduces an actual length of a sentence, while a parole can allow an offender to serve the rest of the sentence out of prison.
“I don’t fully understand what the process is,” he said, “but that still sounds like a way of manipulating the system.”
In Prater’s letter to Jenks, he wrote that his examination of the Chambers case led to his discovery that the board “engaged in a practice of placing inmates on a docket called ‘pre-docket investigation,’” or PDI. If enough board members approved, Prater wrote, certain inmates were considered for early parole. “Inmates are placed on these dockets notwithstanding statutory prohibitions on their parole consideration due to mandatory minimum sentences,” he added.
As for the Open Meetings Act, the prosecutor said board agendas make no mention of the early consideration process. Prater said the practice became evident only when he closely scrutinized meeting minutes and compared them to agendas.
“I … found that even the most diligent member of the public who had an interest in carefully monitoring a specific inmate,” he wrote to Jenks, “would not have known or anticipated the actions of your board.”
The Chambers case arose when Leamon Freeman, a retired Oklahoma County district judge, contacted parole board member Richard Dugger on behalf of Chambers. Freeman, who is longtime friends with Dugger, asked that the inmate be considered for early release.
“I felt somebody needed to try to do something,” said Freeman, who knows the Chambers family and has worked on her case without pay for more than a year. “There wasn’t anything surreptitious about it. Anybody on the board can ask for somebody to be put on [the docket].”
Freeman said Chambers has been a model prisoner and no longer needs to be incarcerated.“I believe she has kicked her alcohol habit,” he said. “She started an AA unit at the prison and has taught other inmates. I don’t disagree with the fact that she had to go to prison. Sometimes that’s what it has to take to straighten people out.”
Chambers, who had been sentenced to 25 years — 10 in prison, 15 on probation — was passed on the March docket. The parole board had been set to vote this week whether to recommend release for her, but the moratorium resulted in her being removed from the docket.
Prater said he had contacted Dugger, a former district attorney, inquiring about why he had pushed for Chambers’ early consideration. Prater said he was told “the board had the power to consider anyone they want.” The prosecutor later contacted Northrup, to relate his concerns that the parole board was unlawfully pushing early consideration.
Two days later, Prater said, he was phoned by an attorney in the governor’s legal office to let him know that he could, if he wanted, protest the consideration at the next parole board meeting.
Fallin’s communication director, Alex Weintz, confirmed that “the response from our legal counsel was essentially that it’s an issue he should address with the Pardon and Parole Board.”
Prater then sought help from House Speaker Kris Steele. But Steele said he found Dugger less than helpful when he asked that Chambers be removed from the modifications docket.
“My efforts last month to have the ineligible offender removed from the parole docket were brushed off by the board,” Steele said. “I made a reasonable request to Mr. Dugger to simply follow the law, but he declined and said he’d do as he pleased.”
Dugger declined comment to Oklahoma Gazette and referred all queries to the Pardon and Parole Board.
Steele went on to assail the board for “playing fast and loose” with sentencing restrictions.
“For this board especially, anything less than following the absolute letter of the law in the most transparent manner possible is entirely unacceptable,” he said. “The effectiveness of this board requires conscientious actions by members who are committed to following the letter of the law and acting in the best interest of public safety.”
While Fallin’s office has indicated the governor believes the parole board acted in good faith, her spokesman said Fallin is committed to strengthening transparency of the pardon and parole process.
“We’ve become aware that there are improvements that can be made at the Pardon and Parole Board, in terms of transparency, how they communicate with our office and other issues,” Weintz said. “In the coming days, we’re going to have a series of meetings with the parole board. We’ve continued to talk to David Prater, and we’re going to seek improvements. The governor has a lot of respect for the district attorney. She takes his concern seriously.”
In the meantime, Tim Sharp said the experience has been frustrating for his family.
“It brings up a lot of memories for Mom to think that inmate can walk free after four years after killing her husband of 52 years,” he said. “It’s shaken her quite a bit, but she’s going to be fine.”