Still Waiting: Oklahoma rarely paroles violent offenders

The courts have ruled that most juveniles in prison are entitled to a 'meaningful opportunity for release.'

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Convicted of murder at age 15 in 1983, Wayne Thompson has been trying to win parole in Oklahoma for the past 20 years. COURTESY

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

Convicted of murder at age 15 in 1983, Wayne Thompson has been trying to win parole in Oklahoma for the past 20 years.

He’s serving a life sentence for the 1983 murder of his abusive brother-in law in Chickasha.

Thompson’s time in prison has spanned six U.S. presidential administrations. He turned 52 in March—his 37th birthday behind bars. His hair has turned steely grey.

“I once went 17 years without a misconduct and I still couldn’t get parole,” Thompson said in a phone interview from Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing. “It’s been real frustrating.”

Juvenile life without parole prisoners resentenced to life are still unlikely to win release in Oklahoma.

The state rarely paroles violent offenders.

In fiscal year 2018, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted favorably to recommend parole just 6.3 % of the time in violent offender cases. Between 2018 and 2016 fiscal years, the board voted in favor of parole for violent offenders just 3.56 percent of the time on average.

After the board makes a recommendation, it’s up to the sole discretion of the governor which violent offenders are approved for parole.

Between January 2016 and March 2019, the Oklahoma governor’s office signed off on parole for 11 prisoners convicted of 1st-degree murder, but at least two of them are still serving prison terms for other convictions, according to state records.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that most juveniles in prison are entitled to a “meaningful opportunity for release,” but some say a life sentence in Oklahoma does not provide that opportunity.

“Some day, somebody will show that nobody is getting out on parole and then I think you will have a decent argument that the statute doesn’t comply with what the Supreme Court has said,” said Robert Ravitz, chief Oklahoma County Public Defender.

Five of the seven Oklahoma juvenile life without parole prisoners who have been resentenced are now serving life terms.

Defacto life without parole

The legal debate over whether life sentences for juveniles are constitutional is already simmering in the courts.

John R. Davis was originally sentenced to life without parole, plus 50 years for fatally shooting a Tulsa convenience store clerk during a robbery. He was 16 years old at the time of the crime in 1991.

In January, Davis was resentenced to life with the possibility of parole, plus 50 years for armed robbery, to be served consecutively. His public defender has argued the new sentence amounts to de-facto life without parole because Davis is still unlikely to ever be released. An appeal of Davis’ new sentence is pending.

Miguel Cardoso is serving life without parole for the 1993 shooting death of Joe Ortega Jr. in Jackson County.

A judge vacated Cardoso’s sentence in 2018 on the basis of his youth and he’s now awaiting a new hearing. His attorney has asked the court to rule that Oklahoma’s straight life sentence is unconstitutional for juveniles because it does not provide them with a meaningful opportunity for release.

“While the state need not guarantee eventual release to a juvenile murder defendant sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, in order to be constitutional, such a sentence must present the defendant some realistic opportunity to obtain release….” Cardoso’s attorney, David Autry argues.

Oklahoma also has some juvenile offenders serving multiple, consecutive life sentences, which juvenile sentencing reform proponent Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, believes are also unconstitutional.

“They are essentially life without parole sentences without being called that,” she said.

In 2018, a Tulsa County District Court judge sentenced Michael Bever to five consecutive life terms for helping his older brother beat and stab their parents and three siblings to death when he was 16. With credit for good behavior, Beaver could theoretically be eligible for parole after 191 years. His attorneys have filed an appeal.

Tushkahomma Leon is serving three consecutive life sentences for killing his grandparents and 8-year old aunt. COURTESY

Tuskhahomma Leon is serving three consecutive life terms for the 1994 murders of his grandparents and an 8-year old aunt in Latimer County. Leon was 15 years old at the time of the crime. After 25 years in prison, Leon is still serving his first life sentence, with two more waiting.

In Oklahoma, a life sentence means a person’s natural life. Prisoners serving life in Oklahoma are eligible for parole after 45 years, sometimes less with credits for good behavior, but the sentence is never discharged.

Parole board recommends few violent offenders

Attorney Debra Hampton represents many Oklahoma prisoners at the Pardon and Parole Board.

The odds are stacked against violent offenders, she said.

“Nobody wants to take a chance because they don’t want to be blamed for the one in 10 who might do something,” Hampton said. “It’s not a meaningful opportunity for release.”

In February, Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed three new members to the Pardon and Parole Board to “address the backlog in the system and move the needle in criminal justice reform for non-violent offenders.”

New board member Adam Luck, CEO of the homeless housing nonprofit City Care, said Stitt has asked the new appointees to change the way the board looks at parole.

“Traditionally, the Pardon and Parole Board have always looked at the question why should this person be let out, but we are now being asked to look at why should these individuals stay in,” Luck said. “I think it’s a pretty big shift.

“He’s really given us a clear mandate on what we are supposed to do.”

For violent offenders, the process is a little harder, Luck said.

“The stakes are so high with violent offenders.” he said. “We are afraid. Nobody wants to be the one who releases someone who goes commits another violent crime.”

Luck hopes the board will move to adopt more a more standardized set of criteria for approving someone for parole in the future.

He also looks at whether a person has a transition plan after release — typically, a place to live and a job.

“On a basic level, if you’ve been sentenced to life in prison, you are eligible for parole at some point,” he said. “The next question for me is how have you changed your behavior?”

Life after death

Thompson was originally sentenced to death for the murder of his brother-in-law Charles Keene in Chickasha.

Keene was married to Thompson’s sister Vickie Mann. The entire Thompson family lived in fear of Keene. He once ripped out the all the telephone wires at the family home. Keene also assaulted Thompson — hitting and kicking him and chasing him with a fishing pole, and Mann and Hickey said. 

Vickie Mann says Keene beat her for the first time on their wedding night. He was 18. She was 15.

“I thought ‘Man, I sure have messed up,’” Mann said. “It didn’t stop until he was gone nine and a half years later — that’s a long time.”

Keene was a heavy drinker. When he didn’t have money to buy alcohol, he huffed paint out of an old bread bag, Mann said. 

He once dangled the couple’s young son from the roof of the house threatening to kill him if Mann left him.  

Mann said she couldn’t go to the police.

Keene had a friendly rapport with local police and was rumored to sometimes act as an informant.

In January 1983, Thompson and two men, Bobby Glass and Tony Mann, kidnapped Keene and beat, clubbed, shot and stabbed him to death.

Thompson killed Keene because he believed it was the only way to protect his family, said Donetta Bradford, Thompson’s childhood sweetheart. The two reconnected decades after Thompson went to prison and still stay in touch.

“He shouldn’t have done what he did, but Wayne was a kid who pretty much didn’t see any other way to stop it,” Bradford said. “The adults were not taking care of it.”

Keene’s body was later found in the Washita River.

When Thompson arrived on Oklahoma’s death row in McAlester in 1984, he weighed 90 pounds and read on a 4th-grade level.

Thompson spent four years on death row locked down for 23 hours a day. Because of his sentence, he wasn’t allowed to participate in any educational programs in prison. He contemplated suicide and made a noose out of a bed sheet, according to Department of Corrections records.

In a 1988 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said Thompson’s death sentence was unconstitutional, marking the first time the high court put any age restrictions on the death penalty. The ruling set the stage for the landmark 2005 Roper v. Simmons Supreme Court decision that held capital punishment was unconstitutional for anyone under the age of 18.

“Thompson awaits life after prison,” one headline from The Oklahoman newspaper read after the decision.

“With good behavior and a timely parole, he could be out in about 10 years,” the story said.

Thirty years later, he’s still waiting.

He had his closest brush with freedom in 2003. The Pardon and Parole Board recommended him for parole and he was sent to a prison work program that gave him greater freedom, but Gov. Brad Henry declined to sign off on Thompson’s release.

Rick Tepker, the University of Oklahoma law professor who argued Thompson’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court, said he never completely understood the reason behind the rejection.

“Wayne falls into this abyss of people who are not sentenced to life without parole but who are not given a decent hearing,” he said.

Over the years, Thompson earned his GED and an associates degree, took computer classes and became the administrator for his prison 12-step program. 

And then, after years of exemplary conduct, Thompson got in trouble for drug possession in prison—making his chances for parole more remote than ever before.  

In 2016, prison guards caught Thompson with half an ounce of marijuana and an ounce and a half of methamphetamine.

“Besides the drugs, he’s basically followed the rules,” Tepker said.

Thompson’s family and friends say Thompson was trying to sell the drugs in order to make money to support himself in prison.

Prisoners often depend on family for financial support to pay for everything from toiletries and phone calls to extra food. Incarceration can be harder on prisoners who don’t have monetary support from the outside. 

Once a year, Thompson’s siblings still buy him clothing and shoes.

“He doesn’t even like us to do that,” said Thompson’s sister Cindy Hickey. “He doesn’t want to be a burden to the family.”

In 2018, the Pardon and Parole Board denied Thompson’s parole again. An investigator for the board recommended in a report

that Thompson be rejected “due to the nature and circumstances of the crime.”

Thompson won’t be up for parole again until 2021. His family has launched a Facebook group to try and gain public support for his release. 

“I’ve already been tried, convicted and sentenced,” Thompson said. “Aren’t you supposed to judge me on what I’ve done since then?”

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.

Part 2: Oklahoma prosecutors are seeking life without parole again in most juvenile cases that are up for review.

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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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