Oklahoma attorney general upholds parole board's commutation authority
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has the authority to recommend commutations of prison sentences — even in cases where inmates have been sentenced under a violent and serious crimes statute that requires them to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before being eligible for parole.
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
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