In, May 1990, Leland Dodd walked into a Holiday Inn and agreed to buy 50 pounds of marijuana from an undercover Oklahoma City police officer.

A paid informant and the undercover detective told Dodd, a 37-year old father of three, and his friend they were buying high-grade marijuana from Thailand that the federal government had brought to Oklahoma on the AWACS planes that flew out of Tinker Air Force Base.

It was the deal of a lifetime — they could clear at least $1,500 profit off each pound.

Dodd dumped out $40,000 in cash onto a motel room table—his life savings from building houses and running a video game arcade in Southeast Oklahoma City, along with money he borrowed from family and friends.

The informant handed Dodd a kilo of marijuana wrapped in plastic before police rushed in from the adjoining room to arrest him. The duffle bag of marijuana Dodd had agreed to buy was on loan from the evidence locker at the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Get emails from The Frontier

“All I want to do is see my kids grow up,” Dodd told police after his arrest, according to transcripts of his trial.

Instead, he became the first person in Oklahoma sentenced to life without parole for drug trafficking under one of the nation’s harshest sentencing laws.

If life without parole wasn’t long enough, the jury also tacked on another life sentence for possession with intent to distribute.

The verdict was more based on how Oklahomans felt about drugs at the time than the facts of the case, jury foreman Robert Muse, recalls.

The jurors, mostly conservative and middle-aged, were concerned about the impact of drugs on the community.

A duffle bag containing one of the bricks of marijuana from Bureau of Narcotics sat on the table in the jury room during deliberations.

“There wasn’t much discussion of the facts,” Muse said. “Everyone had a story of a grandkid, a neighbor or an acquaintance who was on drugs. The attitude was ‘isn’t it terrible, we need to get this stuff off the street. This guy needs to go.’”

The perfect test case 

In 1989, Oklahoma enacted legislation that provided for mandatory life without parole for drug trafficking if the defendant had two or more prior felony drug convictions. The new law took effect just seven months before Dodd’s arrest.

Dodd’s prior drug convictions — all for marijuana — made him a good test for the new law, said Tim Wilson, Dodd’s public defender in his 1991 trial.

“Yes, he was picked,” Wilson said. “He was perfect for them.”

Today, Oklahoma is believed to have the highest incarceration rate in the world, thanks in part to lengthy prison sentences for drug-related offenses.

In 2017, a state task force set up by Gov. Mary Fallin to examine criminal justice reform found that 75 percent of people admitted to Oklahoma prisons were sentenced for nonviolent crimes.

The majority of those nonviolent crimes are drug offenses, said Kris Steele, chairman of the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, who also sat on the task force.

Most people convicted of murder in Oklahoma aren’t sentenced to life without parole, Steele said.

“In many of these drug cases, the actual sentence was much harsher than some of the most violent crimes committed in our state,” he said. “Sentencing someone to life without the possibility of parole for nonviolent drug charge is unheard of in other states but there was a period of time when it was happening way too often in the state of Oklahoma.”

In 2015, Oklahoma did away with the mandatory life without parole sentence for drug trafficking after two prior convictions, but many offenders who were sentenced under the old law remain in prison.

Sentencing reform has so far had a limited impact on reducing Oklahoma’s prison population, because none of the reforms have been retroactive, Steele said.

There were more than 50 men and women serving life without parole for drug trafficking in the state at the time of the law change. Many have asked the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board and the governor to shorten their sentences through the commutation process.

In October, Fallin commuted Dodd’s life without parole sentence to 30 years. But he’s still serving the life sentence for possession with intent to distribute.

The Oklahoma Legislature did away with the maximum life sentence for possession with intent to distribute marijuana earlier this year.

The new law took effect Nov. 1.

For someone with Dodd’s prior convictions, the new maximum sentence for possession with intent to distribute marijuana would be 15 years. Dodd’s already served almost double that.

Now he hopes to get parole.

A ‘cop-manufactured crime’

Leland Dodd is shown in a 2000 prison photograph.

Wilson calls Dodd’s case a “cop-manufactured crime.”

Dodd was no drug kingpin — he was actually pretty inept — and was clearly in over his head, Wilson recalls.

According to transcripts of Dodd’s trial, undercover agents insisted Dodd purchase 50 pounds of marijuana and would not agree to a lower amount — Wilson believes the amount of the transaction was calculated so Dodd could be charged with drug trafficking.

Police paid the informant $4,000 for helping police arrange the transaction, according to court testimony.

“It was a setup and entrapment all the way,” Wilson said. “Dodd is, or was, a pretty good dude.”

Wilson said he asked prosecutors to allow Dodd to plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for a life with the possibility of parole sentence, but then-Assistant District Attorney Wes Lane refused.

Lane did not offer a Dodd a plea deal because he believed Dodd had arranged drug deals in the presence of his children — but there was no evidence, Wilson said.

Prosecutors offered Dodd’s co-defendant Kenneth Holland a plea deal and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Another defendant, Brandon Payne, served probation, according to Department of Correction records.

Lane became Oklahoma County District Attorney in 2001, but was voted out of office in 2006. He now leads Salt and Light Leadership Training Inc., a Christian leadership training program based in Oklahoma City. One of the nonprofit’s focuses is criminal justice reform.

In his closing argument, Lane told the jury that Dodd was veteran drug dealer who refused to take responsibility for his actions.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you believe that this was a police manufactured crime, keep in mind that what entrapment is, is that where a person already has a readiness and willingness to break the law,” Lane said.

Muse said he regrets the verdict today — he wishes he would have done more to sway the other jurors.

“He was a poor little guy who lived on the other side of the tracks who was just trying to get by,” Muse said. “I remember they told us it was like a test case and they wanted to send a message with it.”

A life behind bars

Now 65, Dodd has a long grey beard and lives at North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre.

“We just sit around and watch TV, play cards and eat this crummy food — that’s all we do here,” he said.

Dodd was married at the time of his conviction. His children were ages 14, 11 and 9.

Brenda Dodd, his wife of 18 years, filed for divorce a few months after he went to prison.

He’s not in contact with any of his children today.

“They’re old people now,” Dodd said. “Since this happened, they done growed up and gone. They don’t talk to me and I don’t talk to them.”

I was able to find Dodd’s youngest daughter, now in her mid-30s with children of her own, but she did not respond to my attempts to contact her.

Dodd isn’t sure what he’ll do if he gets parole.

“There’s not much they can do except put me in the old folks home now,” he said.

He would like to move somewhere in northeastern Oklahoma, so he can fish in the Arkansas River and Keystone Lake.

“I like to fish — I’d fish every day if I could,” he said.