Two members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board have been repeatedly targeted by district attorneys from across the state in an attempt to keep them from hearing cases of prisoners who are trying to have their sentences shortened.
District attorneys have repeatedly sought the recusal of Pardon and Parole Board members Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle since the two were appointed to the board by Gov. Kevin Stitt in February 2019, according to interviews and records released to The Frontier.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater went a step further and sued the the board in March, alleging it broke state law by failing to notify district attorneys across the state of prisoners’ pending commutation requests.
The increased pressure from district attorneys comes as the Pardon and Parole Board is playing a more pivotal role than ever in the criminal justice system in Oklahoma. Board members told The Frontier that commutation requests have skyrocketed since 2019, when a new law created an expedited commutation process to release inmates who were in prison for low-level felonies that would now be considered misdemeanors.
The recusal requests mostly center around work done by Doyle and Luck outside of their roles on the Pardon and Parole Board, which some district attorneys claim create conflicts of interest.
Doyle is the deputy executive director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a national nonprofit organization that helps people with criminal convictions find jobs.
Luck is the CEO of City Care, a nonprofit that provides transitional housing for the homeless and operates the Oklahoma City day shelter. He also serves on the board of trustees for the Center for Employment Opportunities and previously served as the Oklahoma state director for Right on Crime, a national criminal justice reform campaign launched by the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation.
It’s those backgrounds that have apparently caught the eye of district attorneys across Oklahoma.
The Center for Employment Opportunities exists in 30 cities, including Tulsa and Oklahoma City, across 11 states, according to its website. Originally begun in the 1970s as an offshoot of the Vera Institute of Justice, CEO separated in 1996 as an independent nonprofit organization. The agency says on its website that it has “made more than 34,000 placements into full-time employment for individuals who were formerly incarcerated.”
The recusal requests shared with The Frontier all share similar language, accuse Luck and Doyle of the same conflicts of interest and frequently use identical wording.
District Attorney Angela Marsee sent a letter to the Pardon and Parole Board in July 2020 that sought the recusal of Doyle from five separate cases. Marsee, whose district includes Washita, Roger Mills, Ellis, Custer, and Beckham counties, said Doyle’s work with CEO “creates an obvious conflict of interest.”
Marsee compared Doyle’s work with inmate reintegration to using her office “for private gain.”
“The mission of (CEO) is not in question, but … any reasonable person could question your bias based upon your current employment with CEO,” Marsee wrote.
A spokesman for CEO told The Frontier they had no comment on the issues between Doyle, Luck and district attorneys.
Marsee told The Frontier she hopes one day there will be a more formal process to initiate a recusal of a Pardon and Parole Board member. Pardon and Parole Board ethics policies state only that board members should self-report any potential conflicts of interest to the chairperson.
“There’s no process for if someone were to disagree with them choosing not to recuse themselves,” she said.
The policy manual states “bias” could merit a recusal, and says that any board member who is “prejudiced, has had a previous personal involvement in a case, has a personal interest in the case or its outcome, or biased or prejudiced toward or against the offender or the offender’s attorney.”
A board member “should recuse” from a vote in which the member’s “impartiality might reasonably be questioned due to the board member’s personal or financial relationship with a participant in the proceeding,” according to the manual.
Doyle told The Frontier she thinks the board, which includes a retired district judge, a former chief U.S. probation officer, and a former pastor with more than two decades of experience in criminal justice and mental health fields “provides a good balanced perspective for decision making.”
“I think that it serves all of us to have a board that has experience working with the population we’re dealing with,” she said. “The governor ultimately makes the final decision on these cases and … I’m sure he wants wide-ranging perspectives when he makes a decision.”
Brian Hermanson, the district attorney for Kay and Noble Counties, filed a recusal request for Doyle in August 2020, asking that she remove herself from the cases of 15 inmates who were up for review.
Hermanson said in the letter that Doyle had “actively and publicly demonstrated a strong bias on issues which exhibit a lack of impartiality” since her appointment to the board by Stitt.
Hermanson wrote that the Oklahoma Constitution, as well as two state ethics rules necessitated her recusal.
“Unfortunately, you have disregarded the constitution and ethical duties of your position and have used your position as a Pardon and Parole Board member to further your personal agenda,” Hermanson wrote.
He quoted from an opinion article Doyle had written that was published in the Tulsa World which urged voters to support State Question 805, which would have ended sentence enhancements based on prior felony convictions.
Laura Thomas, district attorney for Payne and Logan counties filed a protest letter last year accusing Doyle and Luck of “voting on the release of inmates that are, or potentially will become, your own clients and employees.”
“It is our position this is an absolute breach of ethics and at the least has the total appearance of impropriety, as well as the perception of unethical behavior,” she wrote.
Doyle denied her actions as a board member were unethical. Luck, through a spokesman for the Pardon and Parole Board, declined to comment.
Luck earlier this year received a recusal request from Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater ahead of a Stage 1 commutation hearing for death row inmate Julius Jones. Prater was upset Luck had retweeted a tweet by Kim Kardashian, a noted Jones supporter, in order to provide an update to Jones’ case on social media.
Kardashian, in her tweet, told other supporters to contact Gov. Kevin Stitt to ask for “careful and thoughtful consideration” to Jones’ commutation request, and Luck had retweeted her as part of a thread detailing the commutation process. Prater said in his recusal request that Luck, by retweeting Kardashian, had shown that he was biased in favor of Jones.
Luck did not recuse himself from the hearing and voted in favor of Jones, who passed to the next stage of the commutation process, which is yet to take place.
But not all of the recusal requests are so specific. The Pardon and Parole Board provided The Frontier with a sampling of recent recusal requests from the past year. In most, the district attorneys ask for recusals from either Luck, Doyle, or both, and often ask them to recuse from multiple cases each month.
Thomas sent a request to then-Pardon and Parole Board Chairman Robert Gilliland last June saying she was “again asking” Gilliland to find that Luck and Doyle “should recuse from hearing any Payne and Logan County cases.”
Thomas told Gilliland, who died in February, that if Luck and Doyle would not voluntarily recuse, that he should “use your clear authority to disqualify them.” She wrote that while CEO had “admirable and necessary aims and goals,” it was “highly improper for a current employee and board member of this company” to be on the Pardon and Parole Board.
“This is nothing less than a self-serving practice and a conflict of interest,” she wrote.
Bates told The Frontier that Thomas generally sends a recusal request prior to each month’s hearings. There’s currently no mechanism to force a recusal, Bates said. Instead there is a voluntary “self reporting” system he said is designed to maintain the independence of each board member and the general harmony of the group.
Stitt signed a bill into law earlier this month that put into place a code of ethics for Pardon and Parole Board members. Authored by Rep. John Pfeiffer, R-Orlando, the bill states that members of the board “shall uphold and promote the independence, impartiality, fairness and integrity of the Board, and should avoid impropriety or the appearance of impropriety.”
Still, Bates doesn’t see the law — which Marsee told The Frontier was crafted via consultation with the District Attorney’s Council, Bates, Gov. Stitt’s office and lawmakers — will create forced recusals.
“I don’t see any potential for (that),” Bates said.
In March, Prater filed a lawsuit against Stitt and the Pardon and Parole Board, alleging the board (of which three members are appointed by the governor) was not providing copies of inmate commutation requests to district attorneys within 10 days, as required by state statute.
“Such blatant disregard for statutory mandates reflets not only a deliberate course of action by (The Pardon and Parole Board,) but also impedes the district attorney from carrying out his duty to serve as a victim’s advocate and to see that justice is carried out,” Prater wrote in the lawsuit.
Doyle told NonDoc she believed the board was providing those notices to district attorneys in the 10-day window, but acknowledged that a large increase in recent years in commutation requests might have put the office behind.
She also told The Frontier that the board hears from district attorneys at three points before a commutation hearing — in the investigators report, in the protest letters the DAs send, and then in the hearings themselves.
“We absolutely take into account their input,” she said. “I will say … in the majority of the cases we do not hear at all from the inmates,” she said. “I believe that DAs are given a strong opportunity to have their voices heard, and we are listening to what they say.”
Prater has a history of clashes with the Pardon and Parole Board. In 2013 he charged the board’s members with misdemeanors for allegedly voting illegally on prisoners’ requests for early release without notifying the public.
Prater had previously told the board, which at the time consisted of entirely different members from its current iteration, that he would not file charges against them if they resigned first.
Stitt, through a spokeswoman, called Prater’s lawsuit a “political hit job” and a “desperate cry for publicity.”
But Stitt did request the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation look into the board following the commutation earlier this year of Lawrence Anderson. Anderson, 42, was released from prison in January after the Pardon and Parole Board recommended his sentence be commuted. Stitt signed off on the commutation, and less than a month after being released from prison, Anderson allegedly killed three people.
Anderson allegedly broke into a woman’s home, cut her heart out before cooking it and attempting to feed it to two other people, who he is accused of later killing. He had been sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2017 for a probation violation in an older drug case, but his sentence was reduced to just nine years. He was required to serve only three years in prison before his release.
Anderson appeared before the board in 2019, according to Pardon and Parole Board dockets, and had his commutation request denied by a 3-1 vote, something that is supposed to keep an inmate from further consideration. It’s unclear at this point how he ended up on a docket again less than a year later, and why the board voted that time to recommend his sentence be commuted.
“It’s time we do better,” The Oklahoman reported Grady County District Attorney Jason Hicks as saying at a media conference in March. “We don’t want these people on our street.”
Hicks is among the district attorneys who have sent multiple recusal requests to the Pardon and Parole Board for Doyle and Luck. Another prisoner, Jonathan Perez, had his sentence commuted by Stitt in 2019, according to The Oklahoman, even though he had previously had his commutation case denied in 2019.
Stitt told the OSBI to investigate how Anderson and Perez passed through ensuing commutation hearings, but instructed the agency to let him know if more inmates were released in similar ways so that he could “expand the scope” of the OSBI investigation.
Brooke Arbeitman, spokeswoman for the OSBI, told The Frontier this week that investigation is ongoing.
Kris Steele, the former Republican Speaker of the House in Oklahoma, has helped spearhead much of the criminal justice reform in the state over the last five years with the nonprofit Oklahomans For Criminal Justice Reform. When the Pardon and Parole Board in 2019 held the largest single-day commutation in the country’s history, Steele was there with tears in his eyes.
He told The Frontier he thought the diversity in the Pardon and Parole Board “is a real gift to Oklahoma.”
“I think at the end of the day what we want is board members who can make enlightened decisions,” Steele said. “We want board members who can understand the needs of the individual and balance that with public safety. At the end of the day I feel confident we have board members in place who are doing just that.”