Oklahoma still has 24 people serving life without parole for drug trafficking

A new state law that took effect in November allows for people serving life without parole for nonviolent offense to ask a judge to review their sentence after 10 years, but only two people in prison for drug trafficking have applied so far.

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For the first time in years, the family of Ricky Murph, who is serving life without parole for trafficking crack cocaine, has hope he will one day be released.

Murph’s younger brother, Cortez Houston, has also spent time in prison for a drug-related conviction. Now he’s a pastor at a Baptist church in Ardmore.

Houston and his family believe Murph can have a similar second chance.

Ricky Murph is serving life without parole for drug trafficking.

“He’s got just as good of an opportunity to change. In my case, we can see we all have an opportunity to change our lives and go in the right direction,” Houston said. “The fact that it has been taken from him has been devastating especially when we were left with the realization that they were taking that from him over drugs.”

Murph is one of 24 remaining men serving life without parole for drug trafficking in Oklahoma. The state eliminated the mandatory life without parole sentence for drug trafficking after two or more prior convictions in 2015, but the new law was not retroactive.

As Murph’s mother and brother sat before the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board earlier this month, flanked by an attorney and a box of tissues, the body voted unanimously to recommend commuting Murph’s sentence to 15 years.

Murph still has to get the commutation approved by Gov. Kevin Stitt, which would make him immediately eligible for parole.

“I’ve seen one person in my career who deserved that sentence,” said board member Robert “Brett” Macy after the vote. “People who usually get it are the the little guy.”

Oklahomans serving life without parole sentences for drug trafficking

Murph was 34 years old at the time of his conviction for trafficking crack cocaine in 2011. Two prior drug-related convictions guaranteed him an automatic life without parole sentence after a jury found him guilty.

In a letter to the Pardon and Parole Board, Murph wrote that he plans to marry and move in with his fiancee in Lone Grove and help her with her dry cleaning business if he’s released.

“I have three children but one in particular that is in real need of me getting home,” Murph wrote. “She is in foster care and I need to get her and give her a live [sic] she deserves.”

People serving life without parole left with few new avenues for shorter sentences

Of the 24 people in Oklahoma prisons serving life without parole for drug trafficking, eighteen are black. Six are white. All of them are men.

There were about 50 people in prison serving life without parole for drug trafficking at the time of the law change, but many have won commutations for shorter sentences over the past four years. Three of the remaining people serving life without parole for trafficking have been denied commutations at least once. Several others are in the process of applying.

A new state law that took effect in November 2018 allows for people serving life without parole for nonviolent offense to ask a judge to review their sentence after 10 years, but only two people in prison for drug trafficking have applied so far, according to The Frontier’s review of court records.

Kris Steele, chairman of the group Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, also sits on the Pardon and Parole Board. He said he doesn’t expect the new law will help many people obtain shorter sentences, particularly if an offender has to return to the same judge who originally sentenced them.

“It certainly is a step in the right direction,” Steele said. “Hopefully, the courts will do the right thing in reviewing and maybe modifying these sentences.”

New hope for people serving life without parole, but not without frustrations

In 1997, Kevin Ott was sentenced to life without parole for drug trafficking after police found 3.5 ounces of methamphetamine and a handgun in his Cleveland County mobile home. Life without parole was the mandatory sentence in Oklahoma at the time after his two prior felony convictions for drug possession.

For 22 years, Ott’s mother, Betty Chism, never gave up hope that her son would someday walk free.

Oklahoma’s recent efforts at sentencing reform have done little to help people still serving time under old tough-on crime mandatory minimum sentencing statutes enacted in the 1980s and 1990s.

“If they had made those bills passed retroactive, it would have helped the guys tremendously” Chism said. “Life without parole is not even a viable sentence anymore for drugs. These guys are doing more time that for murder in some instances.”

After a years-long process of appeals and multiple applications for a reduced sentence, former Gov. Mary Fallin commuted Ott’s sentence to 30 years in October last year.

But even that’s not a guarantee for a quick release.

In March, Fallin also approved a commutation to 30 years for Leland Dodd — the first man in Oklahoma sentenced to life without parole for drug trafficking. He was immediately eligible for parole, but the Pardon and Parole board rejected his release. Dodd, who has been in prison since 1991 and is 65 years old, must now wait another year to re-apply.

Chism had hoped her son would be home in time for Christmas, but she’s still waiting.

In December, the Pardon and Parole Board voted to approve Ott for parole, but only after serving another six months in a work-release program.

Six weeks later, Ott is still behind bars — waiting to be transferred into the program.

“I’m just waiting for him to get somewhere he is going to be for the next six months,” Chism said. “He’s really anxious to get a job and be able to do something for some normalcy for a change.”

Further reading:
First Oklahoma man sentenced to life without parole for drug trafficking now hopes for release
Leland Dodd has spent 27 years behind bars after agreeing to buy 50 pounds of marijuana from an undercover police officer.

Serving life without parole for drugs, Oklahoma man now hopes for release
“I believe if I had been given the opportunity to complete a rehab after my first two drug convictions, I would not be here today, waiting to die in prison.” – Kevin Ott

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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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