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August 18, 2011

Oklahoma board recommends commutation of LWOP drug sentence

The fascinating local article, which is headlined "Board recommends leniency for drug dealer sentenced to life without parole," spotlights a very interesting clemency issue now brewing in Oklahoma.  Here are excerpts:

The Pardon and Parole Board recommended Wednesday a convicted drug dealer from Kingfisher who is serving life without parole should have his sentence commuted to 42 years.

The recommendation for Larry E. Yarbrough, 61, now goes to Gov. Mary Fallin. Yarbrough has been in prison since 1997.  The board recommended a commuted sentence for Yarbrough in 2002, but then-Gov. Frank Keating denied the request.

The five-member board issued a 3-2 split decision at a hearing room packed with Yarbrough's family members and supporters at Hillsdale Community Corrections Center in Oklahoma City.

Two board members voted not to commute the sentence. Two others recommended Yarbrough's sentence be commuted to time served. One member said the sentence should be commuted to 42 years.  If Fallin approves the board's recommendation, Yarbrough could be eligible for parole next year.

Yarbrough, a former restaurant owner, was sentenced to life without parole in 1997 on a cocaine trafficking charge.  Previously, he served time in prison in the early 1980s on convictions for LSD and marijuana distribution.  Yarbrough also received probation for a felony conviction of receiving stolen property.

State law requires a life-without-parole sentence for drug-trafficking charges after prior convictions for two or more felonies.

In a videoconferencing appearance before the board, Yarbrough said he's been a model prisoner who counseled young men entering prison.... Yarbrough's family and supporters said his sentence was too harsh. “He's served his time already, and he just needs to be out,” said Yarbrough's niece, Rhonda Campbell, of Edmond....

Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for Fallin, said the governor would have no comment until she reviews the board's recommendation for Yarbrough.

Mike Fields, the district attorney for a five-county area including Kingfisher County, spoke before the board Wednesday morning. Fields asked them not to commute Yarbrough's sentence.  He cited Yarbrough's criminal history and the board's power to consider the commutation of life-without-parole sentences.  Fields said the matter should be left to the Legislature.

“In our criminal justice system, there's only one sentence that means exactly what it says, and that's life without parole,” Fields said in a phone interview.  “I think the public, victims' families and law enforcement officers should have assurance that life without parole truly means life without parole.  They can't have that assurance if the Pardon and Parole Board makes it a routine practice of pulling out life-without-parole inmates and recommending commutation.”

Among those supporting Yarbrough was Dennis Will, of Hennessey, a former juror in Yarbrough's 1997 conviction for cocaine distribution. Will provided a letter to the board detailing his concerns with the jury deliberations.  “After I learned he was being given life without parole, I was upset about it,” Will said after the hearing.  “I lost it, because we were not told before we voted.”  Debra K. Hampton, Yarbrough's attorney, said she has talked to two other members of the jury who shared Will's concerns. The other jurors did not want to reveal their identities out of fear of retaliation, she said.

Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, said Yarbrough's case is a “poster child” for extreme sentencing guidelines for drug charges. She said it costs the state an estimated $23,000 a year to house an inmate. “Taxpayer dollars are being squandered on sentences for nonviolent crimes,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she plans to reintroduce legislation next year to stop life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Her prior bills on the matter did not make it out of committee.

This companion piece reports interesting data on LWOP terms in Oklahoma: out of 25,433 total inmates, 764 are serving LWOP terms and 48 of those lifers got LWOP for drug trafficking charges

August 18, 2011 at 10:09 AM | Permalink


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I am a student in criminology and am trying to find out what the sentencing laws are for all criminal offenses.

When I was a young girl we moved from Ft.Towson,ok to the Houston area, I had some friends that was from the Poca city area. When they were young their father killed their mother while she was reading a bed time storie to all 4 or 5 of them. He broke into the house and blew her head off right in the middle of his children. He was sentenced to life in prison, but he was out like 8 years later, married, and went to court to get his young son back. The sisters that have been taking care of him this whole time had no say so in it. The state gave him custodie of my friend and he brought him back to Oklahoma and we never saw him again.
I do know for a fact that he was terrified of his father and none of them wanted to ever see him agin. I ruined the lives of all of the children. After what he had done why would any judge give him the youngest child back without even asking the boy what he wanted?

Posted by: sheila winsett | Apr 11, 2012 2:47:51 PM

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