From today’s story, which is generating a few comments online.
- I’ve also posted a few related letters to Gov. Mary Fallin at the bottom. One is from the District Attorneys Council. The other is from The Sentencing Project.
BY PAUL MONIES
Published: August 18, 2011
The Pardon and Parole Board recommended Wednesday a convicted drug dealer from Kingfisher who is serving life without parole should have his sentence commuted to 42 years.
The recommendation for Larry E. Yarbrough, 61, now goes to Gov. Mary Fallin. Yarbrough has been in prison since 1997. The board recommended a commuted sentence for Yarbrough in 2002, but then-Gov. Frank Keating denied the request.
The five-member board issued a 3-2 split decision at a hearing room packed with Yarbrough’s family members and supporters at Hillside Community Corrections Center in Oklahoma City.
Two board members voted not to commute the sentence. Two others recommended Yarbrough’s sentence be commuted to time served. One member said the sentence should be commuted to 42 years. If Fallin approves the board’s recommendation, Yarbrough could be eligible for parole next year.
Yarbrough, a former restaurant owner, was sentenced to life without parole in 1997 on a cocaine trafficking charge. Previously, he served time in prison in the early 1980s on convictions for LSD and marijuana distribution. Yarbrough also received probation for a felony conviction of receiving stolen property.
State law requires a life-without-parole sentence for drug-trafficking charges after prior convictions for two or more felonies.
In a videoconferencing appearance before the board, Yarbrough said he’s been a model prisoner who counseled young men entering prison. He said he planned to move to California with family if he ever got released from prison.
“I have turned my life around and bettered myself,” said Yarbrough, who is at the Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville. “I have taken every drug program they have.”
Yarbrough’s family and supporters said his sentence was too harsh.
“He’s served his time already, and he just needs to be out,” said Yarbrough’s niece, Rhonda Campbell, of Edmond. “I know my uncle is all about the law, and he does respect the people, but this was too much for that type of felony. We’re just going to keep praying and keep positive.”
Aaron Cooper, a spokesman for Fallin, said the governor would have no comment until she reviews the board’s recommendation for Yarbrough.
Mike Fields, the district attorney for a five-county area including Kingfisher County, spoke before the board Wednesday morning. Fields asked them not to commute Yarbrough’s sentence. He cited Yarbrough’s criminal history and the board’s power to consider the commutation of life-without-parole sentences. Fields said the matter should be left to the Legislature.
“In our criminal justice system, there’s only one sentence that means exactly what it says, and that’s life without parole,” Fields said in a phone interview. “I think the public, victims’ families and law enforcement officers should have assurance that life without parole truly means life without parole. They can’t have that assurance if the Pardon and Parole Board makes it a routine practice of pulling out life-without-parole inmates and recommending commutation.”
Among those supporting Yarbrough was Dennis Will, of Hennessey, a former juror in Yarbrough’s 1997 conviction for cocaine distribution. Will provided a letter to the board detailing his concerns with the jury deliberations.
“After I learned he was being given life without parole, I was upset about it,” Will said after the hearing. “I lost it, because we were not told before we voted.”
Debra K. Hampton, Yarbrough’s attorney, said she has talked to two other members of the jury who shared Will’s concerns. The other jurors did not want to reveal their identities out of fear of retaliation, she said.
Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, said Yarbrough’s case is a “poster child” for extreme sentencing guidelines for drug charges. She said it costs the state an estimated $23,000 a year to house an inmate.
“Taxpayer dollars are being squandered on sentences for nonviolent crimes,” Johnson said.
Johnson said she plans to reintroduce legislation next year to stop life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. Her prior bills on the matter did not make it out of committee.
A recent draft report by the American Law Institute noted the severity of life-without-parole sentences. The Washington-based organization, made up of 4,000 lawyers, judges and law professors, publishes model statutes and restatements of law.
“Short of the death penalty, in nearly every American jurisdiction in the early 21st century, a life term of imprisonment without the possibility of release is now the most severe punishment authorized in the criminal code,” the institute said its “Model Penal Code: Sentencing” report released earlier this year.
Written by Paul Monies