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.
This the first story in a series about prisoners serving juvenile life without parole in Oklahoma.
At age 42, Dana Barker has never lived in the world as an adult.
She’s never signed a lease, paid a utility bill or voted.
Barker has been locked up since age 17, when she shot and killed her father’s ex-wife Brenda Barker in Okmulgee over a child custody dispute.
She’s one of 36 Oklahoma prisoners still serving life without the possibility of parole for a crime committed as a juvenile.
“At 17, I don’t think you can comprehend what the rest of your life means. You’re not even thinking about tomorrow,” she said.
“I’m a different person now—at least I’ve learned right from wrong.”
Two U.S Supreme Court decisions and a subsequent state appellate court ruling have held that most people serving life without parole for crimes committed before age 18 in Oklahoma are entitled to new sentencing hearings that take their youth and potential for rehabilitation into account.
But Barker has no money to hire an attorney and no family who can help with the cost. From prison, she’s tried three times over the past six years to get a new sentencing hearing without success.
“It’s frustrating,” Barker said. “It’s just been sitting there. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do next.”
An investigation by The Frontier 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 to get the courts to appoint them an attorney— a potential violation of their constitutional rights.
Through an analysis of court records, The Frontier found that just seven of Oklahoma’s 43 juvenile life without parole prisoners have been re-sentenced under the new standards.
No help for some prisoners seeking new sentences
The Frontier spoke with six Oklahoma prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles who have no money to hire an attorney and have been unable to get the courts to appoint them one. Some have tried unsuccessfully for years to get their sentences reviewed.
Like Barker, many have filed legal briefs on their own from prison to get a new sentencing hearing. In some cases, the state has failed to respond at all to prisoners’ court filings. Some prisoners have waited more than a year for a response from their local district attorney’s office.
Out of the 36 prisoners who could still be eligible for a new sentencing hearing in Oklahoma, The Frontier found 15 who didn’t have an attorney, according to a review of court records.
Part of the problem is that under state law, public defenders have no power to enter a criminal case unless appointed by a judge.
It’s up to the prisoners to file the right documents with the court to get an attorney appointed to their case, said Tim Laughlin, chief of the non-capital trial division of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.
“It kind of puts us in a bind in these cases,” Laughlin said. “We know there are folks who may qualify for resentencing, but we can’t just jump in and represent them. They have to ask.”
Over the past year, the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association mailed out packets to the state’s juvenile life-without-parole prisoners with instructions on how to ask for a new sentencing hearing and request an attorney. However, some prisoners interviewed for this story said they still didn’t understand the process.
Three prisoners told The Frontier they did not know they had a right to ask the court to appoint an attorney to their cases.
Reviewing The Frontier’s list of prisoners who have yet to win new sentencing hearings, Oklahoma County Chief Public Defender Robert Ravitz said his hands are tied until a judge appoints his office to the case.
“Every person that you have on your list right now in my opinion is being held in violation of the law of the United States,” Ravitz said.
Civil rights concerns
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Since the landmark 2012 Miller v. Alabama and 2016 Montgomery v. Louisiana U.S. Supreme Court decisions, about 1,700 prisoners nationwide have had their sentences modified through legislative reform or judicial re-sentencing, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which tracks the juvenile life without parole cases.
Nationwide, about 400 people previously sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as children have already been released from prison, according to the campaign.
Yet Oklahoma has lagged behind other states in the resentencing process, said Heather Renwick, legal director for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
“I think [Oklahoma] needs to recognize that until someone has been resentenced, they are unlawfully incarcerating these people,” she said. “This is certainly a failure of Oklahoma to protect the constitutional rights of its citizens.”
Oklahoma’s neighboring states Texas, Colorado, Arkansas and Kansas have all moved to ban juvenile life without parole. Colorado, Arkansas and Missouri have enacted legislation to grant most juvenile life without parole prisoners parole or sentencing review hearings after a fixed number of years.
‘I wake up every morning thinking about the free world’
Over the phone, Charles Nolan comes across as quiet and thoughtful, with a dry sense of humor.
At Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville, he spends most his time studying Islam and reading Stephen King and James Patterson novels. Nolan was just 17 when he went to prison. Now 48, his Department of Corrections mug shot shows streaks of grey in his beard.
“I wake up every morning thinking about the free world,” Nolan said. “Somebody has to care that I’ve been locked up for too long … I just need help.”
He’s serving life without parole for killing the owner of a Frederick welding shop during a robbery in 1988.
Nolan hit shop owner Paul Riggs twice in the head with a sledgehammer before fleeing with $200, according to news clippings about the case. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder because his mother worried prosecutors would seek the death penalty.
“When you’re young, you don’t know anything — you’re just crazy,” Nolan said. “I’d be a whole different person if I got out.”
Nolan has no money to hire an attorney, but he filed an application for post-conviction relief on his own from prison in March 2018 using the forms that the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association sent him in the mail. More than a year later, the state had yet to respond.
Tillman County District Attorney David Thomas, who took office in January, said he was unaware of Nolan’s application for a new sentencing hearing. It’s possible his office was never properly served with the documents.
Nolan mailed the forms to the Tillman County Court Clerk’s office from prison. He also mailed in a form requesting the court appoint him an attorney from the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, which a judge has never signed off on.
Justin Ryan Long was just 15 when he stabbed his adoptive father, Hoyt Long, to death in 2000 at their east Duncan home. The Longs had adopted him at age 7.
As a young child, Long says he was sexually abused by a family member. He was placed in state custody at age 5 after attacking another child with a hammer, according to a 2001 article about his trial from The Oklahoman.
Long spent the next two years in a series of foster homes.
In a letter from prison, written in tiny, neat script on lined notebook paper, Long said he wants people to know he is not a bad person.
“I was an immature kid who had emotional issues and didn’t get the proper help I needed,” Long wrote. “Nobody regrets my actions more than me and that’s not just because I was thrown in prison for the rest of my life, but because I lost my father (who I loved and hated) and the rest of my family.”
Long has no attorney or relatives who can help him pay for one. The only family he is in contact with is an elderly grandmother who lives in a nursing home, he said. From prison, Long has filed seven applications for a new sentencing hearing with the help of a prison law clerk — the last of which is still pending.
Long said he’s never asked the court to appoint him counsel because he didn’t understand his rights to an attorney during the re-sentencing process.
“I didn’t know I could,” he said in a phone call from prison.
Since 2017, there have been two Oklahoma appellate court decisions that held people serving life without parole for juvenile crimes in the state are entitled to new, individualized sentencing hearings.
However, the state has argued that Long’s original sentencing already took his age and other factors into account.
Jason Hicks, district attorney for Stephens County, said a psychologist testified at Long’s original trial that he was beyond rehabilitation.
An unexpected visit, answered prayers
Barker’s attempts to have her sentence modified over the past six years have gone largely ignored until recently.
In 2013, a volunteer attorney acting on behalf of Barker and several other juvenile life-without-parole prisoners in Oklahoma filed an application on her behalf. The Okmulgee County District Attorney’s office has never responded to it.
Barker wrote two subsequent applications on her own using the prison law library in May 2018 and March 2019 and mailed them to the Okmulgee court clerk’s office.
Okmulgee County District Attorney Carol Iski said her office was never properly notified of at least one of Barker’s court filings, although the documents show up in Barker’s case file on the Oklahoma State Courts Network website. Iski said she did receive a copy of Barker’s latest court filing, and said she plans to respond. She only received the documents after Barker mailed a copy directly to her office.
In February, Barker received an unexpected visit in prison from an attorney.
It felt like an answer to her prayers, she said.
Lydia Anderson Fields works for the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System. During her off hours, she been she’s traveling to prisons across the state to meet with some of the juvenile life without parole prisoners to discuss their cases.
“A lot of them are kind of falling through the cracks,” she said.
Fields wanted to personally meet with the prisoners because she’s concerned issues like untreated mental illness or a lack of educational attainment may have kept some of them from seeking a new sentence.
“So far it seems like most of them just have a lack of knowledge about their legal rights, or maybe they’re just not feeling like they have a chance.” she said.
Fields can’t take up their cases — to do so she’d have to take a leave of absence or quit her day job. Instead, she tries to advise the prisoners on how to get the ball rolling themselves.
Fields talked with Barker about what legal documents to file in order to get her sentence vacated and get an attorney appointed to her case.
She handed Barker a business card with her title and the words “Oklahoma Indigent Defense System” scratched out with black ink, since OIDS hasn’t been appointed to the case.
Barker gave Fields a hug.
“I’ve been waiting for that visit for 25 years,” Barker said.
Oklahoma prison inmates serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles
Part 2:Oklahoma prosecutors are seeking life without parole again in six of the eight pending juvenile cases that have been granted new sentencing hearings.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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