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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In 1997, Kevin Ott was sentenced to life without parole for drug trafficking. Ott is shown in an undated photograph with his niece, Morgan Hale.  Ott now hopes Gov. Mary Fallin will grant him a commutation. COURTESY PHOTO
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.

He now has a chance to be released.

“I know my life was far from perfect, but I do not deserve to die in prison for my drug addiction,” Ott wrote in a letter to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board earlier this year.

“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.”

In September, the board voted in favor of a commutation for Ott. He’s waiting for Gov. Mary Fallin to decide whether to sign off on the recommendation, which could make him eligible for immediate release.

Drug trafficking offenders seek release after law change

Ott, 56, is one of a slowly shrinking number of Oklahoman prison inmates serving life without parole for drug trafficking.

In 2015 Oklahoma did away with a law from the 1980s that gave drug trafficking a mandatory life sentence after two prior drug convictions, but the new law was not retroactive.

At the time, there were more than 50 men and women serving life without parole for drug trafficking in Oklahoma, but the state has granted many of them commutations over the past three years.

Kevin Ott

Ott’s attorney Debra Hampton has helped about six or seven inmates successfully petition the state to have their drug trafficking sentences reduced. Ott also tried in 2016 for a commutation, but was denied.

“He’s not counting his chickens before they hatch because he’s been disappointed before, but he never made it this far,” Hampton said. “I just know there’s absolutely no doubt he will never have any interaction with law enforcement ever again.”

Ott became addicted to methamphetamine in 1993 after he was laid off from his job at a manufactured building company. He started selling meth to subsidize his unemployment checks. He continued to sell to support his growing addiction.

In the early 1990s, Oklahoma did not have any drug court programs that could have allowed Ott to seek treatment after his first two drug arrests.

The amount of meth Ott was convicted of drug trafficking for fit inside a small envelope.

In prison, Ott’s life without parole sentence disqualified him from entering drug rehab, he said in his commutation application. The state prioritizes offenders with shorter sentences to receive help from those programs.

A family that never gave up

For the past 21 years, Ott’s mother Betty Chism, of Norman, has regularly driven all over the state to visit her son at the various prisons he’s lived at over the years in towns like McAlester, Davis, Lexington, Lawton and Granite.

She’s now 74 and all of the driving is more physically demanding for her than it used to be.

“It’s a death sentence — a slow and miserable death for him and it’s equally bad for his family,” Chism said.

In 2001, Chism’s youngest daughter Brandi died in a car accident driving to visit her brother in prison.

Brandi’s daughter, Morgan Hale, 23, is now studying law at the University of Tulsa, in part because she wants to help people like her uncle navigate the criminal justice system.

Hale has no memories of her Uncle Kevin outside of prison. She likes to say that she only knows Ott as 203093 – his inmate number.

“I’ve only seen Kevin in a prison visiting room, wearing some kind of grey attire,” Hale said. “I always believed he would die in prison.”

The Pardon and Parole Board has recommended commuting Ott’s sentence to 30 years, meaning he could immediately be eligible for parole. Fallin could also give Ott time served, or she could decide Ott should serve more than 30 years.

Renewed hope 

The possibility of a commutation has given Chism hope again, even if it means her son still might not be home for Christmas this year.

“I know he may not even be home next be home this week or this month — but I do know he is coming home. I know an end is in sight,” she said.

After his release, Ott plans to live with his mother and stepfather while he finds steady work and gets acclimated to life outside of prison. During his incarceration, Ott learned how to make beautifully tooled leather saddles, which have sold at auction to benefit various charitable causes.

A saddlemaker in Noble gave Ott all of his tools after he retired, which Chism is storing in preparation for the day Ott is able to open his own shop.

In 2012, Ott’s story received national attention after he was profiled in the documentary The House I Live In. The film examined the failures of the United States’ War on Drugs. People from all over the country wrote Ott letters of support in response to the film – even an entire class of high school students penned him a note.

Ott says he’s stayed sober in prison, and has never failed a drug test while incarcerated.

“Everyone knows the easy availability of drugs in prison, and despite my severe addiction prior to my sentence, I have never used drugs again,” he wrote.

Chism says she knows her son made mistakes, but the punishment has never fit the crime.

“I spent the first few years in total shock because I really could not believe this kind of thing could possibly happen in this country,” Chism said. “He committed a crime and he deserved to pay for that crime. The only thing I’ve ever had a real problem with is that he did not deserve to pay for that crime with his life.”

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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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