In Oklahoma, when we are talking about ridiculously long prison terms that seem far too excessive for the actual offense, we are typically talking about drug crimes. After all, Oklahoma is a "life for pot" state. This time, though, we are talking about shoplifting.
Everyone has heard the horror stories from California's "Three Strikes" law. Prompted by the abduction, sexual assault, and murder of Polly Klaas, the law was intended to keep violent, repeat offenders like Richard Allen Davis behind bars. However, without stipulating that the third offense must be a violent one, the law put people convicted of petty crimes like stealing socks in prison for at least 25 years, and often for life.
Oklahoma's Draconian Laws
While Oklahoma does not have a "three strikes law" per se, it does allow more severe penalties for repeat and habitual offenders. Just ask Cecilia Cathleen Rodriguez, who in 2009 was sentenced to life in prison for shoplifting two purses from Dillard's. At the time, Rodriguez already had 28 prior convictions, and when she rejected a plea agreement that would land her in prison for 17 years, her attorney and a judge warned her that by rejecting the plea bargain to enter a blind plea, she faced the prospect of 4 years to life.
Apparently, the defendant assumed that something as minor as stealing a couple of purses would have a sentence much closer to the minimum of 4 years than the 17 years offered by the District Attorney.
Rodriguez must not have realized that one should never assume an Oklahoma court will be lenient.
Upon sentencing Rodriguez, Oklahoma County District Judge Ray Elliott called her a "one-person crime wave," saying, "It's past time to say, 'Enough is enough.' She needs to be warehoused for the rest of her life." He revoked her probation for a prior shoplifting conviction and sentenced her to life in prison for the latest act of theft in a criminal record dating back to 1971. Her attorney and her family said that Rodriguez is a heroin addict who stole to support her drug habit.
Supreme Court Rules after Appeal
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court vacated her conviction, sending the case back to an Oklahoma County judge to review whether or not Rodriguez had adequate counsel to understand that her rejection of the plea agreement could mean that she would get life in prison. The judge found that her attorney explained to her that her sentence would be entirely at the judge's discretion if she entered a blind plea, and he says that the judge informed her that rejection of the plea offer would result in a sentence of 4 years to life. He found that she was well-informed of the possibility of life in prison and upheld the sentence.
After the judge's ruling, Rodriguez appealed to the United States Supreme Court again. She argued that her sentence was excessive and asked for a criminal appeal on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. The Oklahoma District Attorney noted that Rodriguez could not raise ineffective counsel in her appeal because she failed to raise the issue on direct appeal.
The Supreme Court last week rejected her appeal without comment.