UPDATE: The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board unanimously denied Larry Yarbrough’s parole, despite Gov. Mary Fallin’s commutation recommendation. The baffling decision, particularly given Yarbrough’s health and time served, drew a strong rebuke from Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma:
“After nearly two decades in prison for a non-violent offense, to say that Mr. Yarbrough has paid his debt to society would be an understatement. Mr. Yarbrough is a model prisoner. By shirking their responsibility to correct this excessively harsh sentence, the Pardon and Parole Board committed a grave injustice with implications that reach far beyond this individual case. Their cruel indifference to the needless suffering of a man who poses no danger to society is a far greater crime than any offense committed by Mr. Yarbrough. Their decision offers further evidence of a flawed and unjust system and casts serious doubt on the Pardon and Parole Board’s ability to fairly conduct the duties with which it is charged.”
This essay was originally headlined: Justice For Larry Yarbrough?
BY MARK FAULK
On Tuesday, Larry Yarbrough’s decades long struggle for freedom could be over. Convicted of possession of an ounce of cocaine, Larry was sentenced to life without parole in 1997.
Gov. Mary Fallin signed off on a recommendation March 18 to commute Yarbrough’s sentence to life with the possibility of parole, clearing the way for the Pardon and Parole Board to parole him at a 1:30 p.m. hearing Tuesday.
Yarbrough has been recommended for commutation twice – in 2002 and 2011 – but Govs. Frank Keating and Fallin denied the requests. This time, however, Fallin cited his time served and Oklahoma’s overly harsh drug laws in commuting his sentence.
But with Yarbrough’s health rapidly deteriorating, reuniting him with his wife, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren is now a race against time. Yarbrough appeared by video at the February Parole Board hearing confined to a wheelchair, and is suffering from congestive heart failure and diabetes.
Fallin issued a statement to the Associated Press saying she granted Yarbrough’s commutation because he was sentenced “at a time when Oklahoma’s drug laws were overly harsh, when jurors had no choice but to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
“He has completed behavior modification, anger management and other life skills programs during his 20 years in prison without drawing a single misconduct citation from prison officials,” Fallin said.
To say Yarbrough has paid his debt to society would be a gross understatement.
Since his 1994 arrest in Kingfisher, Yarbrough has maintained his innocence. Kingfisher County Sheriff Danny Graham was exposed as a racist during the trial, and was seen by several witnesses carrying a brown paper sack into Yarbrough’s house after two drug dogs and a dozen law enforcement officers had come up dry during an all-day search. Ten minutes later, the bag was found in the front room, containing a Barbie thermos filled with an ounce of cocaine.
The trial was even worse, marred by jury tampering, collusion, destruction of evidence, and blatant nepotism.
On Feb. 27, 1997, Judge Susie Pritchett, who would later gain national media attention for sentencing Patricia Spottedcrow to 20 years for $30 worth of marijuana, sentenced Yarbrough to life without parole.
Despite the glaring injustices in Yarbrough’s case, there is still opposition to his release. Current Kingfisher County District Attorney Mike Fields has repeatedly lied in public comments about Yarbrough’s history, asserting that “over a period of several years, he was convicted of delivering drugs five separate times and the punishment for those five separate times wasn’t enough to make him stop.”
The facts tell a very different story. In reality, Yarbrough has only two arrests, the first one was divided into four separate felonies for selling a quarter ounce of marijuana to an undercover agent four times. Hardly a career criminal.
Yarbrough has received national media attention as well, and his story is featured in the upcoming documentary Voices in a Jailhouse, due to be released this year.
At least three jurors expressed regret at the harsh sentence. One juror, Dennis Will, has lobbied for Yarbrough’s release for decades. Family and supporters aren’t celebrating yet. When told that Fallin approved Yarbrough’s commutation, Will said, “I’ll believe it when Larry walks out of prison a free man.”
Oklahoma has over 50 inmates serving life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses, costing taxpayers over $1 million per inmate. With mounting medical costs, Yarbrough’s incarceration could end up in the millions.
Life without parole is a sentence that should be reserved for only our most dangerous criminals, not low-level drug offenders. The Parole Board has the opportunity to free Yarbrough and begin the slow but necessary moral process of releasing all those serving grossly excessive sentences for non-violent offenses.
– Mark Faulk is a filmmaker, writer and activist living in Oklahoma City