Still Waiting: Oklahoma prosecutors seek life without parole again in most juvenile cases up for review

While 21 states have moved to ban life without parole for juveniles, all legislative efforts to do so in Oklahoma have failed.

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Robert Mitchell’s prison photos from 2000 and 2016.

This the second story in a series about prisoners serving juvenile life without parole in Oklahoma.

The house on a country road in Seminole County where 90-year old Myrtle Ruby McGehee was brutally stabbed to death in 1992 was torn down long ago, but her family still owns the land.

Charles Mitchell, whose son Robert Mitchell is serving life without parole for the murder, lives across the street in the modest brick house he inherited from his mother.

The two families used to be neighborly. Charles Mitchell used to help the McGehees cut hay.

Now they don’t speak.

“It’s never bothered me any — because I know the truth,” Charles Mitchell said.

Robert Mitchell was just 15 when he was arrested after reporting he found the body of his elderly neighbor Myrtle McGehee. He would help her around the house, bring in her mail, cut grass and rake leaves.

He claims he went to Myrtle McGehee’s house to check on her after seeing a light was on at her house late one night in September 1992. He told police he peered in through a window and saw her lying on the kitchen floor.

After responding to the scene and finding Myrtle McGehee stabbed to death, police immediately settled on Robert Mitchell — the native teenager who lived across the street — as the sole suspect.

Robert Mitchell’s father Charles Mitchell still lives in the house he inherited from his mother in Seminole County. The house sits across the street from the spot where Myrtle McGehee was stabbed to death in 1992. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier

For the past 27 years, Robert Mitchell and his family have continuously maintained that he is innocent.

Recent court rulings have set new standards for sentencing minors to life without parole in Oklahoma and Mitchell has won a new sentencing hearing — one that could see him released from prison some day.

But the state is seeking to sentence Mitchell to life without parole again.

Robert Mitchell’s attorney, Kevin Kemper, is in the process of lining up witnesses he believes will show that his client is a good person who deserves a second chance.

“But he will not testify that he’s guilty and that he’s sorry,” Kemper said. “If you didn’t commit the crime, I cannot advise that you do that.”

‘The worst of the worst’

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that life without parole should be reserved only for the worst juvenile offenders who are beyond rehabilitation, Oklahoma prosecutors are seeking life without parole again in six of the eight pending juvenile cases that have been granted new sentencing hearings, according to a review of court records by The Frontier.

“I think on some of these cases, the district attorney is adamant on life without parole again,” said Robert Ravitz, chief Oklahoma County Public Defender. “I think what will end up happening is that every one of those cases that gets life without parole again will get appealed and we will be spending a lot of time on them.”

In order to meet the new legal standard to justify life without parole, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a juvenile is “irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible” according to a 2016 Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals decision.

It’s a tough standard for prosecutors to meet, but some juveniles who have committed the most callous, violent murders deserve life without parole, believes Jason Hicks, district attorney for Caddo, Grady, Stephens and Jefferson counties.

“There are some of these offenders, if they get out, they will do this again,” Hicks said. “They are the worst of the worst.”

In cases where defense attorneys and prosecutors cannot reach an agreement on a new sentence, a new sentencing trial must be held in front of a jury or a judge, often at great public expense. 

Tim Laughlin, non-capital division chief for the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, estimates each contested case will cost his office anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000 for expert witness testimony and new psychological evaluations. OIDS must also devote an untold number of hours of staff attorney time to the cases, or pay to hire contract attorneys at an hourly rate in some parts of the state.

“We’re still grappling with how expensive this is going to be,” he said.

Oklahoma has failed to enact new sentencing law for juveniles

While 21 states have moved to ban life without parole for juveniles, all legislative efforts to do so in Oklahoma have failed so far.

Three years after the landmark Montgomery v. Louisiana decision, state law is also still unclear about what factors should be taken into account for sentencing juveniles to life without parole under the new standards laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court.

There’s also confusion over whether people serving life without parole for juvenile crimes have the right to be re-sentenced in front of a jury.

Oklahoma has so far been unable to enact any new guidelines on life without parole for juveniles, although there have been several failed attempts in recent years at the Legislature.

“I am very hopeful the Legislature will address those issues and give us something that will give us some guidelines to move forward,” Hicks said.

Resentencing has been stalled in some juvenile cases because district attorneys have simply been unsure what the law requires and whether the Legislature will adopt new guidelines, he said.

Reopening the cases can also further traumatize the families of victims, who must relive the death of a loved one through the court proceedings, Hicks said.

“They have to go back through everything they experienced, which is not fair to them,” he said.

The parents of Australian baseball player Christopher Lane, who was murdered in Duncan in 2013, are faced with flying in from Australia to see their son’s young killer in an Stephens County courtroom again as he seeks a new sentence. It’s a huge hardship on their family, Hicks said. Chancey Luna was 16 when he shot Lane in the street at random. Luna was sentenced to life without parole for Lane’s murder in 2015, but he has since won a new hearing based on his youth.

At an interim study session on juvenile life without parole at the Oklahoma Capitol last year, Angela Wiles, mother of 14-year old murder victim Alyssa Wiles, gave an impassioned plea to lawmakers to consider families who have lost a loved one to violent crime. In 2013, 16-year old Michael Ray stabbed Alyssa Wiles to death in Duncan after she broke up with him. 

“When the judge sentenced him to life without parole, we thought our fight was over,” Angela Wiles said. “But we didn’t understand just how unfair the system really is.”

Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, has pushed unsuccessfully for the past several years for the Legislature to either ban juvenile life without parole or further limit its use.

A proposal she authored this legislative session calls for new sentencing guidelines and also would give juveniles sentenced to life without parole periodic case reviews after 30 years.

However, the bill failed to pass out of committee in the Senate before a key deadline. The proposal had bipartisan support and parts of it could still be revived in another form by the end of the session.

Another bill calling to ban juvenile life without parole outright authored by Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, also did not advance this year.

In 2018, then-Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed a bill that would have kept juvenile life without parole on the books, because she said it didn’t comply with the recent Supreme Court rulings on the issue.

“I would contend that it’s impossible to know whether someone is permanently incorrigible when they are 16 or 17 years old and that’s kind of the policy position other states have taken as well,” Virgin said.

‘It’s a tragedy for everyone’

Seminole County District Attorney Paul Smith believes Robert Mitchell meets the definition of irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible.

“You are talking about someone who was convicted of murdering a 90-year old lady brutally in her own home,” Smith said. “If you look at this from the victim’s standpoint, then why wouldn’t I (seek life without parole again)?”

Myrtle McGehee is buried in Little Cemetery in Seminole County. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier

Myrtle McGehee’s surviving family members also believe Robert Mitchell should stay in prison.

“He’s a very violent man and it’s a tragedy for everyone,” said Patsy McGehee, the wife of Myrtle’s last surviving son Jerry McGehee. “He was just a kid and he messed his life up, but we feel he shouldn’t be out.”

Robert Mitchell has a lengthy prison disciplinary record, which Smith says shows he is incapable of rehabilitation.

Over the past 25 years, he’s been written up for lighting fires in his cell, making lewd sexual comments to a female guard, throwing food trays, punching a hole in the wall and fighting with other inmates.

However, in the past decade, the write-ups have all been for nonviolent, relatively minor offenses like being caught with a cell phone charger and a bag of marijuana. He hasn’t had any write-ups at all since 2016.

“When you’re convicted of first-degree murder and you’re in the prison system, you are going to get involved in stuff that really just relates to just trying to survive,” Kemper said.

Defense attorney Debra Hampton represents several prisoners convicted of murder as teenagers serving life without parole who are now seeking new sentences. She calls her clients “my guys” and says she is sure none of them will kill again, although many of them don’t have spotless prison records.  

“Most of them, when they go in, their conduct isn’t very good because they don’t think they’re ever getting out of prison,” Hampton said. “It levels out after their mid-20s.”

The exception

Noah Hill is one of the few Oklahoma juvenile life without parole prisoners who has won a significantly reduced sentence. Because of his 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. With good behavior credits, he will likely walk free by the end of the year.

Noah Hill

Hill’s favorite book is John C. Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. He likes to cook and wants to go to culinary school. 

It’s challenging for people who go to prison as teenagers to do well in the system, said Hill’s public defender Lydia Anderson Fields.

Prison can be a violent, uncaring place to grow up. 

“It’s nearly impossible to do what Noah did — he’s one in a million,” she said.

Hill, 16, and his cousin, Nicholas Goosby, 15, shot and killed killed a woman during an attempted carjacking in Warr Acres in 1993. They were both sentenced to life without parole.

Nicholas Goosby

Goosby is also up for resentencing, but the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office is seeking life without parole again in his case.

Unlike Hill, Goosby has a lengthy history of misconduct in prison, including multiple write-ups for indecent exposure and making sexual threats to female correctional officers.

“Things happen to you when you go to prison — it does things to you,” Hill said. “I’m the exception.”

A second chance in front of the same judge

Jesse Allen Johnson is one of three juvenile cases that the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office is seeking to re-sentence to life without parole again.

In 2005, Jesse Johnson, age 17, and an adult co-defendant, Antwyon Deangelo Turner, killed Leroy Joseph Vigil. The killing took place in the front yard of Vigil’s Choctaw home.

Turner beat Vigil with an aluminum baseball bat. Jesse Johnson shot the man in the head three times to make sure he was dead, according to trial transcripts.

Jesse Johnson’s mother Nancy Johnson keeps a box of her son’s school sports awards and other mementos. BRIANNA BAILEY/The Frontier

Jesse Johnson’s mother believes her son was trying to win approval from Turner, whom he looked up to.

“He just got caught up with the wrong crowd,” Nancy Johnson said.

A pre-sentencing investigation found Jesse Johnson’s intellectual functioning was in the borderline range with an IQ of 77. The report also noted that he was particularly “susceptible to outside influences.”

A psychologist who originally evaluated Jesse Johnson after the killing recommended that he be sentenced as a juvenile and sent to a group home. He had no prior criminal record.

In prison, Jesse Johnson has been written up for being involved in at least two fights. His mother says he was just trying to survive.

“Prison life is hard,” she said, choking up with tears. “He’s had to fight, because inside, you are tested.”

In 2008, Jesse Johnson was written up for being involved in the death of another prisoner at Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite, putting a cloud over any new hopes he might have for release.

Prosecutors allege several prisoners beat Brian Abernathy to death in retaliation after Abernathy stabbed a member of the Universal Aryan Brotherhood gang.

Nancy Johnson says her son was cleared of being involved in Abernathy’s death after one of the men who pleaded guilty to the murder testified at a preliminary hearing that Jesse Johnson was not involved in the beating. Records show Jesse Johnson was charged with first-degree murder for Abernathy’s death in 2009, but the Greer County District Attorney’s Office later asked for the case be dismissed after a preliminary hearing. Charges were never refiled, but the misconduct remains on Jesse Johnson’s prison record.

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater did not respond to numerous interview requests about Jesse Johnson’s case over a period of several weeks. He also did not answer an emailed list of questions.

Jesse Johnson is also facing being re-sentenced by the same judge who originally sent him to prison for the rest of his life without the possibility of parole.

The Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office claims Jesse Johnson waived his right to a trial in front of a jury when he pleaded guilty and asked Judge Ray Elliott to sentence him in 2007.

“I don’t think that under the circumstances, a second chance is warranted, young man,” Elliott said at Jesse Johnson’s original sentencing. “I’ve stated from this bench numerous times that I try to give everyone a second chance. But there’s an exception to everything.”

The Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office has appealed the issue to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.

At her home in Moore, Nancy Johnson keeps a box filled with mementos from her son’s childhood. There’s sports awards, a few well-loved miniature cars and a dog-eared copy of a favorite book.

In prison, he made her an elaborate dollhouse out of newspapers, pebbles, and scraps of cardboard and fabric as a gift.

She wishes the court could see the sensitive, caring son she says she knows.

“I just want him to come home,” she said. 

Further Reading: 

Part 1: The courts say dozens of Oklahoma prisoners serving life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers have the right to new sentences, but many are still waiting for a second chance.

Slideshow: People serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles

Coming Friday

Part 3: Juvenile no-parole prisoners resentenced to life with the possibility of parole are still unlikely to win release in Oklahoma. The state rarely paroles violent offenders.

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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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