The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board can recommend commutations for inmates — even those required to serve at least 85 percent of their prison time before being eligible for parole.
The governor also has the power to grant such commutations.
That's the official opinion of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
Pruitt issued the opinion Wednesday in response to a question submitted by the parole board.
The board requested the opinion after Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater questioned whether board members had acted illegally by placing inmates on a docket for early release consideration while proceeding under a vague agenda item that did not adequately inform the public. Contacted Thursday evening, Prater said his criminal investigation is ongoing.
“It doesn't affect our investigation at all,” Prater said of the opinion. “It's continuing. We're going through the documents of the last three years of parole board meetings and supporting documents.”
The attorney general's office also is continuing with its investigation into parole board actions.
In the opinion released Wednesday, Pruitt stated it was not intended to address all issues relating to the board's conduct.
“Much of that controversy surrounds whether the Pardon and Parole Board violated the Open Meeting Act when making certain recommendations,” the opinion noted. “This opinion does not address that issue, nor does it address whether the commutation power was properly exercised in any particular instance. It only addresses the broader question of whether the commutation power exists.”
Parole board responds
While Pruitt's opinion was limited in scope, it drew praise from parole board members.
“I thank God in heaven. I thank Jesus that the attorney general has rendered the opinion that he has rendered,” said board member Currie Ballard.
“The official opinion of the attorney general affirms the board's commutation authority under the Oklahoma Constitution and Oklahoma statute(s),” the board said in a prepared statement. “The board along with its staff will continue to work to ensure that the public and all those involved in the criminal justice system are aware of how the clemency process operates in our state.”
Aaron Cooper, the governor's press secretary, issued a statement saying the governor was pleased by Pruitt's timely response.
“The governor understands the concerns of the prosecutorial community and agrees that, although allowed by law, commutations should be rare and only granted under exceptional circumstances,” Cooper said. “Once again, this issue points to the need for additional changes and reforms to address uncertainty in the parole process. The governor's office is committed to working with the Pardon and Parole Board, the Legislature and the prosecutorial and law enforcement communities on policies that will deliver efficiencies in the process while protecting public safety.”
Terry Jenks, director of the parole board, said the authority to recommend commutations of inmates sentenced under the 85 percent law is something the board rarely uses.
Jenks said he is aware of only five inmates in that category who have been recommended for commutations within the last 12 years and said there were “exceptional circumstances.” Most of the five remain in prison because their early release requests did not make all the way through the commutation process.
Jenks identified those inmates as:
Lawrence Watts, 62, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for first-degree manslaughter in connection with the 2003 shooting death of a man outside Watts' restaurant in Eufaula. Watts is the brother of former University of Oklahoma quarterback and U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts. The inmate's wife is a warden at McAlester's Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in Eufaula. Lawrence Watts remains in prison.
Rocky McKinley, 51, who was sentenced to 8 years in prison in 2009 for lewd or indecent proposals or acts to a child and showing obscene material to a minor. He remains in prison.
Curtis Horton, 58, who was convicted of assault and battery with a deadly weapon in Caddo County in 2008 and sentenced to 35 years in prison. The board voted to recommend his commutation after state Sen. Jim Wilson wrote a letter to a board member in his behalf requesting a “compassionate and reasonable solution” for a man who had “effectively been given a life sentence.” Horton remains in prison.
Walter Hill Jr., 51, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Oklahoma County in 2005 for first-degree burglary after a former felony conviction. Former Oklahoma County prosecutor Wes Lane, whose office prosecuted Hill, said he personally advocated for Hill's early release after he became acquainted with him through prison visits and became convinced he had turned his life around. Hill was released from prison in June and Lane said he still visits with him as a mentor.
Maelene Chambers, 50, who is serving a 10-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter following a 2008 conviction in Oklahoma County related to a drunk-driving death. Board member Richard Dugger recommended early release of the former University of Oklahoma cheerleader after receiving a recommendation from former Oklahoma County District Judge Leamon Freeman. Prater is strongly opposed to Chambers' early release and the board's handling of her case is what sparked the prosecutor's initial investigation. Chambers remains in prison.
Pruitt's opinion drew distinctions between pardons, paroles and commutations and the authority the parole board, governor and Legislature have regarding each.
A pardon is an “outright official forgiveness (but not a forgetting) of an offense that cancels the original punishment,” the opinion states. “Generally speaking, a commutation is the substitution of a less severe punishment than was originally imposed. A parole, on the other hand, does not change the original punishment, but rather suspends the punishment contingent on certain conditions being met.”
“The Oklahoma Constitution authorizes the Legislature to adopt procedural regulations governing the manner in which clemency can be sought, and authorizes the Legislature to substantively limit the parole power through statutes requiring mandatory minimum periods of confinement, but does not authorize the Legislature to substantively limit the commutation and pardon powers,” the opinion states.
Regardless of whether it is a pardon, parole or commutation, the parole board must make a recommendation before the governor can act.
Michael McNutt, Staff Writer