When William D. Wood and Donnie M. Daniel had their prison sentences for separate drug convictions commuted in 2016, an article in The Oklahoman noted it was the first two commutations Gov. Mary Fallin had authorized since 2012.
However, The Frontier has learned that commutation applications weren’t being denied during the years prior to Wood’s and Daniel’s successful attempts at clemency — they weren’t being reviewed at all.
During a nearly three-year period beginning in 2013 and lasting until late 2015, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board did not review a single application for commutation, an investigation by The Frontier found.
Generally speaking, a commutation — a rare action that can only be granted by the governor — alters a prison sentence officials considered unjust. Both Daniel, who had been sentenced to life in prison, and Wood, who faced 117 years in prison, had been sentenced under Oklahoma’s former three-strikes drug laws.
Records show 515 commutations were requested in fiscal year 2016. Of those requests, the board recommended just 28 cases to Fallin.
Of those 28, Fallin altered 15 sentences.
Wood’s sentence was shortened to time served, while Daniel’s was altered to life with the possibility of parole. Though their commutation applications were filed in 2014, their sentences were not commuted until January 2016, records show.
DeLynn Fudge, the Pardon and Parole Board’s director, told The Frontier that at least 170 applications were received during the timeframe in which they were not being reviewed. Fudge was appointed by Fallin to head the Pardon and Parole Board in July 2015.
The board began reviewing the backlog in November 2015, Fudge said.
The pause in application reviews was not well-known, attorneys who specialize in filing commutations told The Frontier.
“I knew that they weren’t taking action on any there for a while,” Oklahoma City attorney Tony Coleman said. “But (not reviewing them) is news to me. We eventually just stopped filing them for a while and told people to save their money, because we knew no one was getting (their sentences commuted).
Attorneys who seek commutations before the Pardon and Parole Board can charge thousands of dollars, Coleman said, although he would not disclose his fee structure.
Fallin spokesman Michael McNutt told The Frontier that the governor was aware the applications were not being reviewed and had requested that the board make a number of changes to the commutation process. McNutt said Fallin hoped the changes she requested would simplify the process as well as make it more transparent.
Fallin’s request, and the pause in application processing, took place during a time of unprecedented upheaval at the Pardon and Parole Board. Beginning in 2013, when longtime Director Terry Jenks retired amid scandal, the board had six directors in a two-year span, records show.
Jenks resigned after Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater charged the five-member board with violating Oklahoma’s Open Meetings Act. Those charges were later dismissed after the entire board resigned.
Complicating matters further was legislation that passed changing the process for filing commutation applications. Prior to the change in law, any sentence modification had to be initiated by the board.
Under the new law, inmates are allowed to file their own commutation paperwork.
“(The applications) just started piling up,” Jari Askins told The Frontier. Askins was interim director at the Pardon and Parole Board for seven months beginning in August 2014. “There was no real process for how the parole board was to handle those. No rules in place, no procedures for that.”
Pardon and Parole Board Executive Directors
Terry Jenks – Retired June 1, 2013 after 14 years, resigned in scandal after five-member board was charged with violating Open Meetings Act. Jenks would have been charged had he not resigned, Oklahoman wrote.
Tracy George – The former Pardon and Parole Board general counsel served as executive director after Jenks resigned.
Jari Askins – Interim director appointed Aug. 18, 2014. Served until March 2015.
Van Guillotte –Former Oklahoma Highway Patrol Chief was hired March 30, 2015, resigned May 11, 2015.
Melinda Romero – Served in interim capacity between Guillote and Fudge.
Delynn Fudge – Appointed July 20, 2015 and has served since.
Askins said her tenure was supposed to last three months, but instead lasted seven months. During that timeframe Askins began the process of developing rules around processing inmate commutation applications, Fudge told The Frontier.
After Askins left in March 2015, she was replaced by former Oklahoma Highway Patrol Chief Van Guillote. Guillote lasted only 25 days before resigning.
He was replaced by Melinda Romero, who served in an interim capacity before Fudge was appointed by Fallin on July 20, 2015.
It was Fudge who finalized the process of reviewing commutation applications that Askins had begun developing. Though successful commutations are rare, the number of submitted applications has skyrocketed, Fudge said. While there were only about 170 during the nearly three-year span applications were not being reviewed, Fudge said 515 were processed during the last fiscal year.
“The reality is that (commutation) is a rare process,” she said. “People want it to be a get-out-of- jail-free card, but it’s really there to correct an excessive or unjust sentence.”
‘The pardon and parole process is very difficult’
Fudge’s tenure, nearly two years now, represents the longest period of stability at the Pardon and Parole Board since Clark resigned following a 14-year run as director in 2013.
Fudge told The Frontier she has sought to streamline processes that had been vague and to increase transparency. Dockets for parole, pardon and commutation hearings are now listed on the Pardon and Parole Board website, as are the results of those hearings.
“We’ve worked very hard improving our website so it’s more accessible, and there’s greater transparency,” Fudge said. “The pardon and parole process is very difficult, and most people don’t have any kind of experience with it. We’ve tried to develop information so they might understand it a little better.”
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“The pardon and parole process is very difficult, and most people don’t have any kind of experience with it.” Pardon and Parole Board director DeLynn Fudge. [/perfectpullquote]
But there has still been upheaval. The five-member board that oversaw the pardon and parole process had been whittled to three members as of the last parole docket, Coleman and Fudge said.
The board had consisted of Thomas Gillert, Patricia High, Vanessa Price, Brett Macy and William Latimer. High and Price, both of whom had been appointed by Fallin, left the board. Their departures meant that the Pardon and Parole Board was without a quorum for April and could not meet, pushing back the hearings of offenders who had anticipated an April hearing to May.
The departures of High and Price meant that instead of the 3-2 majority that had been needed to move forward on the two-stage parole docket, offenders needed a unanimous 3-0 vote from Gillert, Macy and Latimer to progress through the system.
“To their credit, those three guys are handling a heavy caseload and doing one hell of a job,” Coleman said.
One position filled, one still empty
Fallin filled one of the vacant Pardon and Parole Board seats in April when she selected retired District Judge Allen McCall to replace High. McCall’s term will last only until January 2019 — by law, Pardon and Parole Board terms last only as long as the sitting governor’s.
All four of the current members of the board have law enforcement backgrounds — McCall and Gillert are former judges, while Latimer and Macy are former police officers.
Critics have argued that having ex-law enforcement on pardon and parole boards can have a chilling effect on the granting of paroles.
American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel urged Fallin to fill the vacant fifth position with someone of a different background.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Just because you have expertise in law enforcement does not mean you have expertise on rehabilitation. I think the state would benefit from a Pardon and Parole Board that isn’t filled with folks that are inclined to keep people behind bars whether or not they deserve to be there.” ACLU Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel[/perfectpullquote]
“I would definitely encourage the governor to look beyond the law enforcement community for the next member,” Kiesel said. “That perspective is certainly covered and well represented on the board.
“Just because you have expertise in law enforcement does not mean you have expertise on rehabilitation. I think the state would benefit from a Pardon and Parole Board that isn’t filled with folks that are inclined to keep people behind bars whether or not they deserve to be there.”
Kiesel said he thinks someone with a “mental health or criminal defense” background would “be a valuable voice on the board.”
Finding an eligible person with that type of background might be easier said than done. State statutes require anyone appointed to the Pardon and Parole Board to have a minimum of three years experience in the “criminal justice field.”
In a statement, Fallin told The Frontier she “is working diligently” to fill the open board position.
“I’ll consider all qualified applicants,” she said in the statement.
Correction: This story originally misidentified the law the Pardon and Parole Board was accused of breaking.