I investigated Oklahoma’s juvenile life without parole cases and found the state is violating prisoners’ constitutional rights

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that life without parole should be reserved for only juveniles who are incapable of rehabilitation. Oklahoma has lagged behind in reviewing these cases under new legal standards.

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Brianna Bailey.

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They were convicted of murders committed as teenagers and condemned to die in prison.

At the beginning of 2018, Oklahoma had 43 prisoners serving life without parole for crimes they committed before age 18. The landmark 2016 Montgomery v. Louisiana U.S. Supreme Court decision held that most juvenile life without parole prisoners in the United States were entitled to new sentencing hearings that take their youth and potential for rehabilitation into account.

Although a handful of juvenile life without parole prisoners in Oklahoma have won new sentencing hearings since the ruling, I found none who had been released from prison. I wanted to find out why.

I spent months reviewing court files and writing letters to Oklahoma’s juvenile life without parole prisoners.  And I spoke with people like Trimaine Vick, who is serving life without parole for fatally shooting a man in front of his family during a home-invasion robbery when he was 16.

The victim, David Kennedy, 21, and his pregnant wife were visiting his sister’s apartment in Oklahoma City at the time of the robbery in 2000. Eyewitnesses identified Vick as the gunman, but he has maintained his innocence for nearly 20 years.

Vick’s family has no money to pay for an attorney and he never graduated from high school.

For the past year, he’s attempted to win a new sentencing hearing on his own using the prison law library at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington.

Since September 2018, he’s mailed eight motions and other court filings to Oklahoma County court clerk’s office. The state has yet to respond to any of them.

“I don’t really have access to a good law library or anything,” Vick said in a phone call from prison. “You really need an attorney to kind of ramp things up and do the leg work for you.”

The killing of David Kennedy was cruel and senseless. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Vick, who was still a child at the time of the crime, has a constitutional right to a sentencing hearing that weighs his youth as well as his capacity for growth and change — something the state of Oklahoma has yet to give him. 

Since Vick’s conviction in 2003, the courts have recognized advances in neuroscience that show the adolescent brain isn’t fully developed. Scientists now understand that the brain’s prefrontal cortex continues growing well into a person’s mid-20s. Because of this, teenagers have poor impulse control and don’t fully comprehend the consequences of their actions. They also have greater potential for rehabilitation than adults.

After six-month investigation, I found that many Oklahoma prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles have struggled to get their cases reopened for a new sentencing hearing or even get access to an attorney— a potential violation of their constitutional rights.

Although the Supreme Court has ruled that life without parole should be reserved only for the worst juvenile offenders who are beyond rehabilitation, I also found that Oklahoma prosecutors were seeking life without parole again in six of the eight pending juvenile cases that had been granted new sentencing hearings.

My investigation also found prisoners serving to life with the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles are still unlikely to win release in Oklahoma. Most of the Oklahoma juvenile life without parole prisoners who have been resentenced are now serving life terms.

Since The Frontier published Still Waiting, my series on juvenile life without parole in Oklahoma, another legislative session has come to a close without any new measures to clarify the state’s law on juvenile life without parole sentences.

A few of the prisoners I interviewed for the series have since obtained legal counsel, including Dana Barker, who was 17 when she shot and killed her father’s ex-wife Brenda Barker in Okmulgee over a child custody dispute. Barker claims that she was the victim of horrific abuse at the hands of her father as a teenager. She is still trying to get her case reopened for a new sentencing hearing — something the local district attorney is fighting against.

Noah Hill is likely to be the first of Oklahoma’s juvenile life without parole prisoners to walk free later this year. Hill was 16 when he participated in the shooting death of a woman during an attempted carjacking in Warr Acres in 1993. Because of Hill’s good conduct in prison, the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office and his public defender were able to reach a deal for Hill to receive a suspended life sentence with the first 45 years in prison.

In an interview in the Oklahoma County jail, Hill told me how he loved to cook and read books. He said he wanted a second chance to live a good life and atone for the one he took.

Hill’s projected date of release is Dec. 23.

The rest are Still Waiting. 

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Brianna Bailey

Brianna Bailey grew up in Idaho. Oklahoma is her adopted home. Bailey has covered issues ranging from Oklahoma's strained child welfare system to the slow decline of Oklahoma's rural hospitals. She has walked all the way across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to south via Western Avenue and once via the old U.S. Route 66. Her hobbies are baking and crashing meetings she isn't invited to attend. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Oklahoma. Email her at brianna@readfrontier.com
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