Three Deaths and Many Questions Follow Commutation of Sentence

A 911 call brought police to the scene, and the death of a four-year-year old girl and her grandfather resulted in shocking revelations about the crimes and the criminal history of the man accused of committing them. The accused killer’s release from prison only a month earlier has at least one public official calling for a closer look at the Oklahoma pardon and parole system.

Moreover, as is often the case in these tragic circumstances, mental illness factors into the equation, not simply due to the role it may have played in the commission of the crimes, but also as to whether it factored into the accused individual’s release from prison in the first place.

It began with a 911 call

When police responded to a hang-up call to 911 from a house in Chickasha, they found the child and her 67-year-old grandfather dead along with two others injured. One of the wounded, Lawrence Anderson (the 42-year-old nephew of the deceased grandfather), was charged with killing his uncle and the young girl, along with injuring his aunt.

Police later discovered the body of a 41-year-old neighbor and attributed her death to the accused as well. Media reports indicate that the accused confessed to killing the neighbor, cutting out her heart, and then attempting to force his aunt and uncle to eat it. The deaths occurred, according to police, when the accused was angered by his aunt and uncle’s refusal to comply.

The accused's criminal history

It has been reported the accused served time in state prison for prior criminal convictions. The first was in 2006 when he was charged with attacking a girlfriend, pointing a gun at her, and possessing crack cocaine with the intent to sell. With the help of earned “good time credits,” he was released after serving less than two years of a four-year sentence.

He returned to prison in 2012 for selling crack cocaine and was again granted early release after serving less than five years of a fifteen-year sentence; regardless, he remained on probation as part of his original sentence. In 2017, a judge sent him back to prison on a twenty-year sentence resulting from two new drug and gun charges and a probation violation. Nevertheless, the governor commuted that sentence in 2020 from twenty years to nine based upon a recommendation from the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

Other reports relay that the pardon and parole board voted to recommend commutation of the sentence. As we explained in a previous post about presidential pardons, the process for pardons and commutations in Oklahoma involves the pardon and parole board investigating applications and holding hearings regarding inmates’ requests for commutation.

Although the state promises to look into the matter to determine exactly what happened in this case, the district attorney handling the 2021 charges claims his office was not notified or allowed to object to the commutation. It has also been reported that the accused’s latest alleged victims were unaware of his release from prison. More troubling is the allegation that they were also unaware he had used their address as his place of residence when released only a month before killing his uncle and seriously injuring his aunt.

A commuted sentence and early parole

It would be enlightening to know what the pardon and parole board reviewed before recommending commutation. According to its official website, the process of commutation should be limited to situations to "correct an unjust or excessive sentence" and not solely as a method for obtaining an inmate's early release from imprisonment. It goes on to confirm that the district attorney involved in the original prosecution has the right to protest the request for commutation before the board makes its decision.

Ultimately, I have a great deal of faith in the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. I have appeared before them numerous times, and I know the members take their responsibilities very seriously. I’m sure they had valid reasons for recommending relief for the accused. Be that as it may, I fear that a case such as this — where a recently commuted inmate is accused of such a horrible accusation — may have a chilling effect on the Board’s commutation decisions moving forward.

It would be naïve to think that the Pardon and Parole Board will escape all scrutiny (even if most of it is simply from the court of public opinion) in regards to their decision. Still, the fact that one individual allegedly caused so much tragedy subsequent to their recommendation and his release cannot overwhelm the multiple instances in which a commuted sentence has given an individual a new lease on life and the opportunity to contribute back to the society they previously wronged.

I hope that the public will see this situation as an outlier and that the Pardon and Parole Board will continue to use their discretion in recommending commutation and parole for those who meet the necessary criteria, despite the small possibility that they may commit another crime once released. Furthermore, I hope everyone will consider the mental health issues involved in this situation and understand that those factors most likely contributed to the subsequent alleged criminal conduct more so than anything the Pardon and Parole Board did or didn’t do.

Defense questions mental competency of the accused

Given the nature of the crimes, it was no surprise when the accused’s defense attorney requested an evaluation of his client’s competency to stand trial. Unlike an insanity defense (which goes to the question of the ability to form the mental thought process necessary to legally commit the alleged criminal acts), competency to stand trial involves a criminally accused’s ability to understand the charges and participate in their defense.

A person found to be incompetent to stand trial in Oklahoma can be placed under the state’s authority for treatment, with the case being delayed until the person is found to be competent. Once the defendant is medicated and subsequently “competent,” the case resumes and proceeds as any other criminal allegation would.

Notwithstanding, long-term commitment to a facility that provides treatment for the accused’s specific mental disorder is also an option under the law. Even in that case, though, once competency is finally established, the criminal case will resume. If the state cannot establish competency, it is more likely that the criminal case may end in an acquittal by reason of insanity.

The specific individual accused of the killings at issue is reported to have admitted during a court appearance in 2017 that he suffers from bipolar disorder for which he was being medicated. The nature of his most recent behavior and the state of his mental health in the past appear to be a sound basis for requesting an evaluation of his current state of mental competency.

Sadly, it may also raise additional questions about the appropriateness of commuting the sentence that allowed him to be released from prison, in so far as whether or not the correct precautions, restrictions, and obligations were put in place to protect him and the public if and when he was released. At the end of the day, mental health should not be a bar to commutation or parole; however, it should be a factor that is considered and analyzed in detail when creating a plan to reintegrate individuals back into society upon release.

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