Former Oklahoma County District Judge Leamon Freeman confirmed Thursday that he asked a Pardon and Parole Board member to recommend the early release of inmate Maelene Chambers, but contends everything was done properly and above board.
“I was paid nothing for this,” Freeman, 83, said of legal work he has done in behalf of Chambers, 50, of Edmond. “I don't think there was any secret stuff.”
Freeman's actions touched off a chain of events that prompted Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater to write a scathing letter to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Wednesday accusing it of operating a secret early release docket in violation of Oklahoma's Open Meeting Act.
Prater also accused the board of expediting the early release of some inmates who were ineligible because they had not fulfilled mandatory sentencing guidelines. His letter listed 50 inmates whom Prater said were given improper preferential treatment in the early release process. Some have been released while others remain incarcerated.
In a new development Thursday, Prater said his inquiry has revealed that the Pardon and Parole Board was not forwarding to Gov. Mary Fallin all the information it had in cases where it was recommending that she grant inmates early release.
“Objection letters” from district attorneys were among the information withheld, Prater said.
Chambers, a former University of Oklahoma cheerleader, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in 2008 in the October 2006 drunk-driving death of Joseph Sharp of Edmond. Chambers reportedly had been driving her 2006 Corvette at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour when she plowed into the back of Sharp's Ford Ranger pickup, killing Joseph Sharp and seriously injuring his wife, Betty.
Chambers was sentenced to 10 years in prison plus 15 years probation. She is not eligible for parole until 2016 under an Oklahoma law that requires individuals convicted of certain serious crimes to serve 85 percent of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole.
Freeman said Thursday that he was asking for Chambers' sentence to be commuted — not for her to be paroled — and he believes there is a legal distinction.
“The (85 percent) statute doesn't say anything about commutation of a sentence,” Freeman said, adding that it is his legal opinion that the governor, acting upon the recommendation of the parole board, can commute sentences of individuals ineligible for parole consideration.
Prater strongly disagrees.
“I determined that the 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 said in his letter to the parole board. “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 the request of the governor's office, the parole board placed a moratorium Thursday on early release consideration of inmates not yet eligible for parole. An attorney general's opinion is being requested.
Chambers is still incarcerated and her name has been removed from the board's August early release consideration docket, Prater said.
Freeman said Thursday that he did not know or represent Chambers as her attorney in 2008 when she pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter.
Freeman said he became aware of Chambers case through “a dear friend of mine and my wife who knew the Chambers family and kept talking about it.”
The attorney said when he looked into Chambers case, he found that she has been a “model prisoner” who has started programs to assist other inmates and regularly receives top scores for her behavior from the prison system.
Freeman said he has been advocating for her early release ever since, including contacting parole board member Richard Dugger, who made the request that Chambers be given early release consideration. Freeman said he has known Dugger since law school, but they “don't socialize.”
“I'm doing it for free. I'm paid nothing for this,” Freeman said of his assistance to Chambers. “She's a woman who no longer needs to be in prison and I believe in rehabilitation and redemption.”
Disagreeing with Freeman's description of Chambers is Betty Sharp, whose husband was killed in Chambers' drunk-driving accident.
“It blows my mind that any politician would listen to some scumbag in jail,” Sharp said of Chambers' campaign for early release. “She has lived a reckless life ... She doesn't think the rules apply to her.”
“Not only did she kill my husband, but I have suffered enormous physical pain,” she said. “I've had four surgeries since the wreck.”
Sharp said her family members were surprised and upset when they received notification through the victim's information system that Chambers was up for early release consideration, something they didn't expect before 2016.
Prater said he started an inquiry into the parole board's early release practices after being contacted by the Sharp family on July 19.
Freeman said Prater should not have been caught off guard by Chambers' early release consideration. Freeman said he tried repeatedly in early June to make an appointment with Prater to discuss the Chambers case but Prater refused to meet with him.
Prater acknowledged refusing to talk with Freeman.
“Frankly, her family has tried to get many people in the community to call me to ask me to do things on her case,” Prater said. “I've had numerous people call me and try to influence me into offering her some leniency from her sentence and I wasn't going to do that. I would never do that for this defendant.”
Prater said he is unimpressed with the requests for help because of the “crime she committed and lack of remorse.”
“She has no remorse. It's all been about her,” Prater said.
Chambers, who has been an outspoken advocate for changes in the 85 percent law, said in a 2009 interview that she does feel remorse.
“The remorse and the guilt and the sorrow never leaves,” she said during that interview.
Prater said he has received telephone calls from victims throughout the state who have given him names of former inmates they believe were released before they should have been.