Prater sues Stitt, parole board
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater on Thursday asked a judge to block Gov. Kevin Stitt from granting any commutation or parole request "tainted by ... improprieties" at the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.
The governor, in turn, called the lawsuit a political hit job.
The district attorney accused the board of blatantly violating the law by not giving prosecutors proper notice when inmates request commutations. He specifically accused the acting board chairman, Adam Luck, and another board member, Kelly Doyle, of having a direct material financial interest in the cases coming before them.
The prosecutor asked District Judge Don Andrews to invalidate on ethical grounds any parole or commutation recommendation where they voted. He also asked the judge to block the governor from considering any of those recommendations.
"We are not intimidated by political hit jobs disguised as ‘lawsuits’ in a desperate cry for publicity," the governor's office said Thursday afternoon.
"Governor Stitt is proud of all four members of the constitutionally established Pardon and Parole Board who take their jobs seriously and consider each case on its individual merits.”
The Pardon and Parole Board's general counsel said there would be no comment on the pending litigation. Luck and Doyle could not be reached for comment.
Attorney General Mike Hunter said, “Similar concerns have been raised with our office recently regarding the conduct of certain Pardon and Parole Board members. District Attorney Prater has chosen an appropriate forum to investigate these matters.”
The sweeping legal action comes days after the board voted 3-1 to give death row inmate Julius Jones a second hearing on his commutation request.
Jones, 40, is facing execution for the 1999 fatal shooting of an Edmond insurance executive during a carjacking. He claims he was framed.
Millions signed a petition in his support after ABC in 2018 aired the documentary series "The Last Defense" about his innocence claim. His supporters include celebrity Kim Kardashian, former University of Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and former Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook.
Before Monday's vote, Prater asked Luck to recuse himself from participation in the decision.
"You have publicly demonstrated your personal bias in regards to this case," the prosecutor told Luck in a letter.
Luck in October 2019 retweeted a request by Kardashian to "please help" Jones by asking the Pardon and Parole Board to give careful and thoughtful consideration to his request for clemency.
Luck retweeted the celebrity's request at the start of a series of tweets on the commutation process and the death penalty in Oklahoma. Luck Monday refused to recuse himself from the decision.
Luck said he viewed social media as a way to bring clarity and transparency to the processes of the board.
In his legal petition Thursday, Prater asked the judge to direct the parole board to adopt "appropriate procedures to consider and adjudicate a challenge to a member's ability to hear a matter in a fair and impartial manner."
The legal action also comes at the same time state agents are investigating whether two inmates were recommended for commutation by mistake.
The governor requested help from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation after a drug offender, Lawrence Paul Anderson, was accused of fatally stabbing three people in Chickasha on Feb. 9 after getting out of prison early.
Anderson, 42, has confessed, saying he cut out one victim's heart to eat, according to court affidavits. He was released in January after the governor commuted his sentence for drug dealing and other crimes to nine years.
The governor signed the commutation after the Pardon and Parole Board recommended it by a 3-1 vote last year.
Records show the Pardon and Parole Board had rejected Anderson's commutation request 3-2 in July 2019. That denial should have blocked any further consideration for three years.
Anderson, however, applied for commutation again in August 2019 and got votes in his favor in October 2019 and January 2020, records show.
Prater made note of the triple murder case in his legal action.
"Unfortunately, Anderson's case does not appear to be an isolated instance of procedural irregularity by the Pardon and Parole Board," he told the judge.
"To truly answer the call to service to keep our communities safe and to be a strong voice for crime victims, the prosecutor's advocacy must continue at every step the laudable goal of justice might be threatened," he wrote. "Here, the threat comes from the deliberate subversion of constitutional and statutory obligations by the Pardon and Parole Board."
The governor appointed Luck and Doyle to the board in February 2019 and said they would bring a fresh perspective.
Both have been accused of bias, though, because of their employment.
Luck is CEO of City Care, a nonprofit organization working with Oklahoma City residents in extreme poverty.
Doyle is deputy executive director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, which helps released inmates access jobs and housing.
"The board is supposed to be neutral,” Payne County District Attorney Laura Thomas complained in a news release last year. “Victims and others who are protesting early release can’t help but doubt whether these two board members will fairly consider their arguments.”
In his petition, Prater told the judge Luck and Doyle have "nefarious motivations" behind the decisions they make. He asked the judge to rule that a reasonable person would believe under the circumstances that they appear to be biased.
Supporters of Jones have criticized Prater for not speaking up about Allen McCall, a former judge. The supporters complain McCall made up his mind to oppose Jones' commutation request well ahead of time.
Oklahoma is not alone in having no established way to challenge a member's impartiality to the entire parole board.
"In the past I have been asked to research other states, how they handle this same issue," the board's general counsel, Kyle Counts, said Monday. "I couldn't find any state where there was a mechanism for forcing the recusal of a board member, rather by the board membership or otherwise.
"The reason for that is because it promotes independence of each board member and it also promotes harmony of the group."
Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said Thursday that "thousands of fellow Oklahomans who were serving excessive sentences have returned home, been reunited with their families and are leading productive lives" since 2018.
Steele, who has served on the parole board himself, said recent polling affirms that the majority of Oklahomans support criminal justice reform and efforts to safely reduce the prison population.
"Collectively, Oklahomans understand the importance of a second chance and support values like grace, mercy, fairness, redemption, and restoration," Steele said.
He noted that Oklahoma law requires at least two board members have five years of training or experience in mental health, substance abuse services, or social work.
"The two members singled out in the lawsuit were likely selected to serve on the board because they meet these criteria," Steele said. "Having Pardon and Parole Board members that possess experience, education, and expertise in these fields leads to balanced and informed decision-making."
Prater has taken on the Pardon and Parole Board before.
In 2013, the prosecutor charged board members with violating the Open Meeting Act. He dropped the charges in 2014 after the board made improvements and acknowledged the past “procedure did not adequately promote the goal of insuring public notice.”