The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has been operating a secret parole docket and expediting the release of some inmates — including inmates ineligible for early release because they have not fulfilled mandatory sentencing guidelines, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said Wednesday.
The list of inmates placed on the secret docket by parole board members includes murderers and child molesters, as well as inmates convicted of lesser crimes, records reveal.
Prater said he believes the Pardon and Parole Board's actions violate Oklahoma's Open Meeting Act, and he is considering filing charges against board members.
The parole board issued a prepared response Wednesday, saying “all board meetings are conducted according to the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act in an open, public forum” with required notices posted.
“While the board believes it has both statutory and Constitutional authority to bring offenders up for early consideration, to ensure the board process remains open and transparent, the chairperson will place a moratorium on the early consideration process,” the board stated. “In addition, the agency will request an attorney general's opinion regarding the 85 percent law and the authority to place offenders on a docket for early consideration.”
The 85 percent law requires inmates convicted of certain offenses to serve 85 percent of their sentences before being considered for release.
Attorney General Scott Pruitt said Wednesday he has been informed of Prater's allegations.
“These allegations are of great concern because 85 percent crimes are some of the most heinous crimes committed against Oklahomans,” Pruitt said. “The Legislature established a clear requirement so that victims and their families can be assured that an offender will serve no less than 85 percent of their sentence.
“Any practice, policy or action taken by any board or commission to mitigate or change the time served is wrong and inconsistent with statute,” he said. “I will do everything in my power as attorney general to ensure that victims have confidence in our legal system and that justice is carried out to the fullest extent.”
Prater called for action to return some inmates into state custody.
“The effect of the board's illegal actions requires the executive branch to take immediate steps to remediate the damage caused by the board,” Prater wrote in a letter this morning to Terry Jenks, executive director of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. “Immediate steps should be taken to reverse the decisions made subsequent to the board's invalid actions. Obviously, this will include taking inmates who have been released back into custody.”
Prater released a list of 50 inmates who he said have been given illegal preferential parole treatment by the board since 2010.
Some, but not all, of those inmates have been released, Prater said.
At least five of the inmates granted early release consideration were sentenced under Oklahoma laws that require them to serve 85 percent of their sentences before being considered for early parole and they had not yet met that requirement, Prater said.
“It appears many other inmates ‘passed' by the board to an early parole docket were prohibited from early parole consideration because of other statutory restrictions,” he said.
“After careful consideration of all the facts and circumstances in this matter, I have determined that the violations of the Open Meeting Act are willful, conscious and purposeful violations of the law,” Prater wrote. “Additionally, I find the Board's actions to be deliberate disregard of Oklahoma's Open Meeting Act. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board's violations in this matter are egregious, aggravated and a clear attempt to operate in secrecy, outside of public scrutiny.”
Alex Weintz, Gov. Mary Fallin's communications director, issued a statement Wednesday saying the governor is reviewing Prater's letter and shares his belief that the pardon and parole process should be as open as possible.
The parole board's moratorium was declared at the governor's request, Weintz said.
“To ensure the board is meeting a high standard of transparency and openness, the governor has asked the board to review its practice of posting meeting notifications and to increase the level of information it makes available to the public prior to those meetings,” Weintz said.
The Oklahoma governor currently reviews all parole recommendations in the state. To date, Fallin has approved parole for 51 percent of the inmates who have been recommended for parole by the parole board, Weintz said.
The list of inmates Prater alleges were given improper preferential parole consideration includes some who were serving life sentences and at least one who was serving a sentence of life without parole. Among the noteworthy individuals on the list were:
• Ben W. Jones Jr., 58, who served a 57-year sentence out of Oklahoma County for a 1974 first-degree murder conviction and was serving additional time for escape from a penal institution when paroled.
• Jonathan W. Davis, 52, who is serving a life sentence out of Beckham County for first-degree murder. He remains incarcerated.
• Daniel G. Liles, 52, who was sentenced to life in prison for a 1982 south Oklahoma City stabbing death and five more years for damaging the state penitentiary in McAlester during a 1985 prison riot. He was paroled and released in March 2011.
• Pedro Huerta, 43, who was serving time out of Oklahoma and Cleveland counties for lewd acts with a child and lewd molestation. He remains incarcerated.
• Rocky McKinley, 51, who is serving time out of Grady County for lewd or indecent proposals or acts to a child and showing obscene material to a child. He remains incarcerated.
• Jack Logsdon, 66, who is serving a 23-year sentence out of Logan County for swindling Wichita State University baseball coach Gene Stephenson and several prominent Guthrie residents out of more than $900,000 through a series of fraudulent cattle, land and business investments. He remains incarcerated.
Also on the list was Patricia Spottedcrow, whose case prompted cries for sentencing reform after it was publicized that she had received a 12-year sentence for selling $31 of marijuana to a police informant. Fallin agreed to her early release in July, with the stipulation that she complete 120 days at a community-level correctional facility.
Prater said he first became aware that something was amiss on July 19 when he received a call from the family of a man who was killed by Maelene Chambers, of Edmond, in a 2006 drunken-driving accident in northwest Oklahoma City.
Chambers was convicted of first-degree manslaughter on March 4, 2008, and sentenced to 25 years in prison, with the final 15 years suspended.
Prater said the family member of the drunken driving victim had received an automated call from the state's victim information system stating that Chambers was up for parole, but Prater said he knew that shouldn't be happening because Chambers was sentenced under the law that requires her to serve at least 85 percent of her sentence.
An inquiry revealed that parole board members had been operating a secret parole docket, called a “pre-docket investigation,” Prater said. Board members could ask that an inmate be placed on that docket and the inmate would be considered for early release if three board members voted for it, he said.
“Inmates are placed on these dockets notwithstanding statutory prohibitions on their parole consideration due to mandatory minimum sentences,” Prater stated.
He said attorneys in his office were unaware of the dockets and were not informed when inmates convicted out of Oklahoma County were placed on those dockets to be considered for early release.
Further investigation revealed that parole board member Richard Dugger had made the request that Chambers be given early parole consideration, Prater said.
Prater said when he called Dugger, Dugger told him “the board had the power to consider anyone they want.”
He said Dugger went on to say that Leamon Freeman, a retired Oklahoma County judge, had contacted him and requested that Chambers be considered for early release. Freeman and Dugger were described as law school classmates and friends.
Revelation of the secret parole docket could destroy public confidence in the Pardon and Parole Board at a critical time. Oklahomans are scheduled to vote Nov. 6 on a proposal to remove the governor from the parole process for nonviolent offenders.
House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, issued a news release Wednesday criticizing the parole board for its hidden actions.
“Our criminal justice system has zero tolerance for even the appearance of playing fast and loose with sentencing laws,” Steele said. “For this board especially, anything less than following the absolute letter of the law in the most transparent manner possible is entirely unacceptable. I applaud District Attorney Prater's efforts.”
Steele said Prater informed him of the issue last month. Steele said he contacted Dugger to ask that Chambers be removed from the parole docket, because she was ineligible, but was “brushed off by the board.”
“I made a reasonable request to Mr. Dugger to simply follow the law, but he declined and said he'd do as he pleased,” Steele said.
“The effectiveness of this board requires conscientious actions by board members who are committed to following the letter of the law and acting in the best interest of public safety. Avoiding problems like this is one of the reasons the Legislature has put stricter qualifications on the next round of Pardon and Parole Board members. It is critical that the public has full confidence in the important work done by this board. My hope is that these actions are immediately ceased and remedied so the board can begin a new day.”
The five-member Pardon and Parole Board is an independent, constitutional panel. Board members are appointed, three by the governor, one by the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, and one by the presiding judge of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. The board is responsible for making clemency recommendations to the governor concerning convicted adult felons.