Under Oklahoma’s habitual offender law, Rodney Fisher, 52, is serving a life sentence for a series of purse snatchings in the 1980s and a prison escape in 2004. Fisher said he couldn’t believe “they would sentence me so harshly, like I shot somebody or something.” (Kara Stevick/The Medill Justice Project)

Man in prison for life after purse snatchings


Editor’s note: This story is based on an investigation by Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project, which collaborated with OKJ2 – Oklahoma Journalists for Justice. Both MJP and OKJ2 are members of the Journalism Justice Network, which focuses on wrongdoing in the criminal justice system and examines potentially wrongful convictions.


Yaqoob Qaseem, Kara Stevick and Alyssa Wisnieski
The Medill Justice Project

It was not unusual for people to ask 68-year-old Gladys O’Connor for directions. She was often one of the only people around her quaint South Tulsa residential community during the day. So she didn’t hesitate when a man approached her in front of her Cambridge Square condo that afternoon on Oct. 24, 1986, and asked for directions to a nearby intersection.

Gladys O’Connor’s purse was snatched outside her Cambridge Square condo in October 1986. Within six months, Rodney Fisher was convicted of the crime—his third felony—and a spate of others and sentenced to 52 years in prison. (Alyssa Wisnieski/The Medill Justice Project)
Gladys O’Connor’s purse was snatched outside her Cambridge Square condo in October 1986. Within six months, Rodney Fisher was convicted of the crime—his third felony—and a spate of others and sentenced to 52 years in prison. (Alyssa Wisnieski/The Medill Justice Project)

According to court records, O’Connor had just returned home from a trip to the grocery store and bank with $200 in the tan Coach purse slung over her left shoulder. She was standing in the sunshine outside her door just beyond a massive pecan tree. She noticed her flowerpot had fallen off the stoop, she later testified.

As O’Connor began to gesture to explain what road to take, the man grabbed her arm. He snatched her purse and struck O’Connor in the chin. She started to fall but the purse caught on her wristwatch so he jerked the purse free. O’Connor was spun around as she fell. From the ground, O’Connor watched the man flee to a cream-colored car.

Recovering from bruises, O’Connor was called to the police station a week later. She looked through three books containing hundreds of photos of suspects but did not find her assailant. Twelve days later, she viewed a lineup and immediately identified the man whom she believed had attacked her: 23-year-old Rodney Fisher.

Within six months, Fisher was sentenced to 52 years in prison for the O’Connor crime and a spate of other purse snatchings in 1986. He maintains he wasn’t involved in the O’Connor robbery. He also admits he served as the getaway driver in some purse snatchings but never approached or touched the victims in any of the crimes.

Fisher’s sentence was the end product of a system of justice put in place in Oklahoma more than a century ago. That style of justice largely remains. It is called the habitual offender law—known colloquially as “three strikes.”

It works this way: If you commit a third felony, you’re in big trouble. And it usually means spending a long time in prison. In Fisher’s case, because he had already been convicted of two felonies, it meant he was slated to be behind bars until he was 75.

“I was devastated, I mean … how could they do that type of thing?” he said in an interview for this story, adding he was stunned he “could be railroaded like that, that they would sentence me so harshly, like I shot somebody or something.” O’Connor, the victim of the purse snatching, was not seriously injured and went on to live to the age of 92.

Under Oklahoma law, those convicted of murder can serve as little as 10 years. A robbery sentence can bring less time than that. Some nonetheless say Fisher, now 52, got what he deserved. Others point to action in states that have reformed draconian sentences. In Oklahoma, leaders are beginning to grapple with the consequences of prison overcrowding, one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation and the consequences of its habitual offender law.

 

Origins of the law
Oklahoma’s habitual offender law is as old as Oklahoma’s government itself, archival records show.

When Oklahoma became a U.S. territory in 1890, its first legislative assembly adopted a law, borrowed from the Dakota Territory, which heaped on more prison time for those who committed a second “offense punishable by imprisonment in the Territorial prison.”

Little changed in the law until the late 1970s, a review of the statutes over those 80 years shows. On the heels of President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, launched in 1971, Oklahoma lawmakers added language to increase the punishment for third-time felony offenders. Before, in some instances, they were given 10 years to life. After, they were given 20 years to life.

That’s what Fisher faced in 1987 for the O’Connor purse snatching.

Six years later, in 1993, Washington state voters passed a law mandating life without parole for third-time felony offenders who commit serious crimes, the first in a national three-strikes movement. This came in the wake of a prominent murder by a man with a history of sexual assault. In California, the kidnapping and murder of a 12-year-old girl by a paroled inmate with an extensive record, which included kidnapping, drove voters to pass their own three-strikes law. At least 22 other states and the federal government followed suit by 1997.

 

A desire to succeed
Fisher’s life history involved less serious crimes than the murders that prompted the enactment of three-strikes laws.

jewel-fisher
Jewel Fisher, Rodney Fisher’s mother, said she worried about her son’s future when he was a teenager. (Kara Stevick/The Medill Justice Project)

Growing up in the Turley area of North Tulsa, it “was important to him to try to make something of himself,” Jewel Fisher said in an interview for this story. “He wasn’t somebody who was satisfied with things as it was … so he probably pushed a little harder.”

Fisher joined the football team at McLain High School in Tulsa, even though, according to his family, he wasn’t gifted on the field. He didn’t play in games, instead busying himself on the practice squad. “He hustled,” said his older brother Byron, who played on the school’s state championship football team. “He put a lot of effort into it.”

Fisher also pushed himself in the kitchen, where he learned his love of cooking from his mother, who worked as a cook at a downtown diner. He spent his childhood shadowing her while she made cinnamon rolls and lasagna, two of his favorite dishes. Fisher looked for solace in pots and pans when the football sideline cast a shadow. He often resorted to making pasta dishes because they were hard to mess up, his mother recalled. “He used to think he could cook,” Byron added, laughing.

Jewel and her boys spent Sunday mornings in church. Fisher’s grandfather was one of the preachers, and his cousin conducted the music and played in the band. Fisher sang in the youth choir with his younger brother, Allen, a continuation of the time they spent at home pretending they were the Jackson 5. Fisher learned the scriptures but said he was just a kid and didn’t internalize them. “ … [I]t was just Sunday school and choir rehearsal and getting up in front of the people and doing what we learned,” he said.

Rodney Fisher pictured on the day of his high school graduation. (Photo courtesy: Jewel Fisher)
Rodney Fisher pictured on the day of his graduation from McLain High School. (Photo courtesy: Jewel Fisher)

Jewel often wasn’t home because, when she wasn’t working as a cook, she sold cosmetics and Tupperware containers to make ends meet. “They had to adjust to things that wasn’t the way we wanted it,” Jewel said, adding the boys’ father left when Fisher was 6 years old and had scarce contact with the family throughout Fisher’s childhood.

In that vacuum, Fisher’s craving for success got him into trouble. “He wanted to do something so bad that it sort of led him maybe to be with the wrong crowd in order to achieve his goals,” Jewel said. She remembers getting a call one day from the police station. Fisher had been hanging out with a group of high school friends who got caught stealing candy from a grocery store. His mother worried about his future. “I wasn’t able to talk to him like he should, so I brought his daddy in to talk to him,” she said. But by then, it was too late.

 

Busboy to burglaries
In January 1982, Fisher was a skinny 18-year-old busboy making just above the minimum wage of $3.50 an hour. But on one chilly day that month, he also had an avocation: burglary.

According to court records, Fisher broke the window of a home just blocks from his mother’s house in Tulsa. With an accomplice, Fisher said he stole a stereo. About four months later, Fisher pleaded guilty to his first felony conviction and was sentenced to 90 days in jail with an additional 21 months to be served as probation.

Nearly two months after being released from jail, Fisher violated his probation when he resorted to burglary again as he and two accomplices cut a hole in the wall of a Tulsa nightclub, according to court records. Fisher said one of his accomplices used a sledgehammer to break through the brick wall. In February 1983, Fisher pleaded guilty to his second felony, which combined with his first conviction earned him a sentence of three and a half years.
“I was selfish, I was a kid,” Fisher said, “ … I’m just thinking of the money.”

 

Bucking the national trend
Prisons in Oklahoma have become so overcrowded in recent years that the visitation rooms and gymnasiums have been packed with inmates’ bunk beds.

sean-wallace
Sean Wallace, former director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said prison overcrowding is a concern for guards who are understaffed and under increasing pressure. (Yaqoob Qaseem/The Medill Justice Project)

It got to the point in recent years when prison guards, understaffed and under increasing pressure, were concerned about their own safety, prompting them to contact Sean Wallace, then director of Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, an advocacy group for prison workers.
Wallace took the guards’ safety concerns to Oklahoma defense attorneys who recommended that he seek legislative action.

The result: Not much. Last year, legislators considered but rejected a bill that would have reduced the maximum sentence from life to 20 years for an offender who commits a nonviolent crime after having been convicted of another felony. Wallace blamed the district attorneys for blocking the bill.

The prosecutors’ opposition was a practical matter, said Trent Baggett, a lobbyist for Oklahoma district attorneys. The bill, he said, could have resulted in lower sentences for some crimes committed by repeat offenders than the sentence for the same crime for a first offender. “They tried to look for a silver bullet to reduce the number of people that are in prison,” he said. “ … We just didn’t think that this one was a good idea.”

From 2009 to 2014, Oklahoma’s prison population jumped 16 percent, or almost 4,000 inmates, according to its department of corrections. The rise in inmates is particularly pronounced because it flies in the face of a 17 percent decrease in property and violent crimes statewide during that time. Oklahoma’s prison population stands at 28,871, or about 120 percent of capacity. The state’s incarceration rate is the second highest in the nation, just behind Louisiana, and its female incarceration rate is the highest.

Oklahoma is bucking a national trend. In 2007, the nationwide incarceration rate hit a historic high, and some states began enacting criminal justice reform. By 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the national incarceration rate fell by 7 percent.

The cost of incarceration is taking a toll on Oklahoma as its department of corrections blew through its budget this past year.

“The situation in Oklahoma prisons is very serious,” said Gov. Mary Fallin (R) in her February State of the State Address. “ … [T]he department of corrections will run out of money this fiscal year. To prevent that, the department would have to make cuts causing it to house prisoners in unsecure areas, furlough correctional officers and other undesirable outcomes.”

The following month, Oklahoma tapped into its rainy day fund—which can be used in emergencies and to supplement the state’s budget—to provide an additional $27.5 million for its prison system.

 

A second purse snatching
On Oct. 16, 1986, Arlene Eyre-Reid was still a newcomer to her apartment complex just off the Arkansas River in South Tulsa. As she walked down the winding sidewalk to her second-story unit that morning, she kept a cautious eye on an unfamiliar man dressed in a black leather suit approaching her from a distance. When she took her keys from her purse, she noticed his pace quicken. As she began walking faster, so did he, according to her court testimony.

Soon, Eyre-Reid, then 35, was running up the stairs to her apartment, screaming. She turned around. He pulled her purse from beneath her right arm and punched her in the face. She fell and then rose to follow him but stopped when she tasted the metallic hint of blood in her mouth. Once inside her apartment, Eyre-Reid called police.

Two days later, a detective showed her about six photographs. She picked out one of the men. It wasn’t Fisher.

Nearly a month later, Eyre-Reid viewed a lineup. She immediately singled out a different man: Fisher.

steve-kunzweiler
Steve Kunzweiler, the Tulsa County district attorney, said Rodney Fisher “actually seemed like he got some leniency.” (Kara Stevick/The Medill Justice Project) 

Eyre-Reid couldn’t be reached for comment. Steve Kunzweiler, the Tulsa County district attorney, recently pulled records from the case, for which Fisher was prosecuted by a previous district attorney. The prosecutor’s files show the attack affected the vision in Eyre-Reid’s left eye, Kunzweiler said.

“[S]o his actions, literally in addition to whatever it was he was trying to pursue from taking the money from her purse, resulted in permanent damage to this particular victim,” he said. “Very, very, very violent crime.”

Fisher said he never laid a hand on any victim. He said he served as a lookout or driver of the getaway vehicle in the purse snatchings.

 

Wide latitude for prosecutors
Laws aimed at habitual offenders are frequently considered harsh, given the lengthy sentences involved, and in Oklahoma, prosecutors often use their discretion when pursuing convictions involving those who commit multiple felonies, according to many state leaders.

Here are some examples they give: A district attorney may not seek a lengthy sentence for a robber who commits a second offense of shoplifting because the second charge is so minor.

District attorneys may also be reluctant to seek a long sentence when prior offenses are far in the past. Another factor is how district attorneys in a given county view a particular crime; if, for instance, an area is known for cooking methamphetamines, then community outrage may prompt prosecutors to take a harder stance on such offenses.

Justin Jones, the former director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said district attorneys have wide latitude when it comes to applying the three-strikes law. “It really depends on how bad they want you and what you’re willing to do,” he said of prosecutors and defendants. “It’s rather capricious the way it’s applied.”

Brad Wolgamott, deputy research director of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, said, “We’ve got 27 or so [district attorney] districts, and criminal justice application varies across those jurisdictions.” He added there’s a great deal of “discretion by the district attorneys on whether or not they’re going to apply” the habitual offender law.

Kunzweiler, the Tulsa County district attorney, confirmed prosecutors have discretion but considers it a useful tool. He said there are instances when prosecutors don’t have enough evidence to pursue a repeat offender’s conviction for a particular crime. In some cases, prosecutors may try the accused on a different charge—for instance, on a drug offense—when authorities can prove it.

tiim-harris
Tim Harris, former Tulsa County district attorney, speaks at a recent town hall meeting. Harris believes Oklahoma is making progress in reforming sentences for nonviolent crimes but any changes to sentences for violent crimes are at least five to seven years away. (Kara Stevick/The Medill Justice Project)

“What’s the best thing I can do for my community?” he asked. “I find a way to put that guy in prison for that drug crime because I can at least remove that cancer for some period of time.”
Tim Harris, who preceded Kunzweiler as Tulsa County’s district attorney, said prosecutors are well versed in criminal cases, including their access to police records, and thus should have the latitude to decide whether to use the habitual offender law.

“I think there are more long-term prosecutors who are willing to make good decisions in behalf of individuals on the habitual offender statutes,” he said, adding, “Of all entities, we are probably in the best-suited position to exercise that discretion.”

 

A third purse snatching
Many of the residents of Sandpiper apartments in Tulsa were already home when Leslie Ness, then a 23-year-old producer at KJRH-TV, pulled into the parking lot just before 11 p.m. on Nov. 5, 1986. She emerged into the brisk evening in a thick sweater and began walking toward her apartment when she heard footsteps, according to her testimony. A clean-shaven man in a tan jacket was approaching her from behind in the well-lit complex. He slowed down as she looked back at him about 10 feet away. She hurried toward her first-floor door.

Just then, she heard his voice: “Hey, are you Teresa?”

Ness turned and replied no.

“Give me that,” the man demanded, grabbing the strap of her shoulder bag.

“No,” she screamed as she clung to her purse. The man pushed her down onto the steps. He grabbed the back of Ness’ head, “knocking” it into the stairs about four times, she said. Ness brought her arm up to her face to soften the impact. He took her purse and ran toward the parking lot.

About a week later, Ness, who sustained a black eye and some bruises, picked out the man in a police lineup with no hesitation: Fisher.

Here’s the tally of the three purse-snatchings Fisher was convicted of committing in 1986: For the O’Connor crime, which Fisher maintains he didn’t commit, he faced the consequences of a third felony conviction, following his two burglaries in the early 1980s. Under Oklahoma law, that was 20 years to life. The jury sentenced him to 32 years.

Separately, Fisher pleaded guilty to participating in the Eyre-Reid and Ness crimes for which he was sentenced to 20 years.

That meant Fisher was sentenced to 52 years in state prison for the three purse snatchings.

Fisher was also convicted of two other purse snatchings that occurred at about the same time as the others but no time was added to his sentence. In one of these cases, the victim testified she sustained multiple fractures in her knee and required surgery as a result of being knocked down and dragged across a yard.

Reached recently for comment, Ness, who now goes by the name Leslie Duffield, was taken aback by Fisher’s lengthy sentence. “I think that sounds excessive,” she said in an interview for this article. “I think that sounds incredibly excessive … I knew he was convicted but I had no idea that it was that long.”

The crime left an indelible mark on Duffield, making her feel “very violated” and “very much aware of my surroundings going forward to this day even.” But she said she believes criminals such as Fisher should be given opportunities for rehabilitation:

“I don’t know that 52 years gives you much of an opportunity to move on.”

But Kunzweiler, the Tulsa County district attorney, said Fisher “actually seemed like he got some leniency.” Kunzweiler added, “He’s a threat to my citizens and so we’ve got to deal with those kinds of people. … I don’t like the idea that he has to spend the rest of his life in prison but that’s probably the place for him because he’s never demonstrated anything but violent conduct and threat to the community. Those are the people I’ve got to protect my community from.”

Harris, the former Tulsa County district attorney, said, “The prosecutor’s place is not only to look at that individual victim, but it’s the crime against the state of Oklahoma.”

 

The Beatles
Little legislative action has tackled three strikes in Oklahoma, experts say.

kris-steele
Kris Steele, former speaker of the house in Oklahoma, discusses at a recent Tulsa town hall meeting ballot initiatives he believes will ease overcrowding in state prisons. (Yaqoob Qaseem/The Medill Justice Project)

“It is a fair statement to say that habitual offenders under the three strikes have not been addressed to this point,” said Kris Steele, former speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, adding, “When we are simply warehousing individuals because that’s the best that we can do, given the number of people we’re incarcerating … that’s not a good situation for public safety at any level.”

In 2012, California revised its habitual offender law by imposing life sentences only when a third felony conviction is classified as violent or serious. Since 2000, at least 17 additional states and the federal government have “passed laws repealing mandatory minimums or revising them downward for certain offenses, mostly in relation to drug offenses,” according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research group in New York.

Many state leaders are concerned that Oklahoma isn’t acting fast enough to overhaul its prison system.

“It took an extra 10 or 15 years for the Beatles to make it to Oklahoma. I would expect that criminal justice reform is going to be much the same,” said Cory Williams, a Democratic state house representative from Stillwater.

One of the problems is that Oklahoma “does not have very good, if any, data on who is going to prison, [or] why they’re being sent into prison,” said Adam Luck, a board member of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

He added, “There’s no way right now that we can currently look at the system overall and say X percent of our population in prison has been sent here because of these habitual offender laws. … There’s really no way that we can know the effect of a particular statute on our prison population.”

California, like some other states, does know. As of 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 7,338 inmates who had been sentenced under the three-strikes law to 25 years to life with the possibility of parole, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

California counties that more strictly enforce the three-strikes law did not show a greater reduction in crime of any type compared to counties with more lenient enforcement, according to a study by the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

But a study of California’s habitual offender law by economics professors from Claremont McKenna College and George Mason University showed that felons with two strikes had a 17 percent to 20 percent lower arrest rate compared to those with one strike. The study, though, raised questions about whether the law was a cost-effective way to reduce crime due to the heavy imprisonment costs.

 

Clyde the bloodhound
At 4:30 a.m. on June 5, 2004, all the prisoners in the B-unit of minimum-security Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in McAlester, Oklahoma, were accounted for. Two hours later, after breakfast, one was missing: Fisher.

The Jackie Brannon Correctional Center is a minimum-security prison in McAlester. (Oklahoma Department of Corrections photo)
The Jackie Brannon Correctional Center is a minimum-security prison in McAlester. (Oklahoma Department of Corrections photo)

The prison’s bloodhound Clyde was used to track the missing inmate’s scent, according to court records. Picking up the trail just outside the dormitory-style unit, Clyde led a two-man search party 150 yards east across an open field toward West Street, where the trail ended. The only remaining signs were U-turn shaped tire markings covering the grass and street.

By then, Fisher was sitting in the passenger seat of Nicole Pettit’s old blue four-door Buick. Pettit had written letters to Fisher, become his pen-pal girlfriend and visited him in prison. At one point, he had confided to her his plan to escape.

In an interview for this story, Fisher said he escaped by running across the fenceless prison yard in the early hours of the morning to a nearby QuikTrip gas station where Pettit was waiting for him. Still clad in his gray prison garb and black boots, the word “inmate” printed across his back, Fisher shared a quick kiss with Pettit before the pair anxiously set their sights on the East Coast. Elated to be free, Fisher chose to eat at Pizza Hut.

The couple hoped to share a quiet life together near the water in Florida. “We were trying to go to Florida, go work and get a job and just stay out of trouble and just be back in society,” Fisher said.

Two days later, after making pit stops to bunk at an Arkansas motel and fix a flat tire on the Buick, Pettit said, their coastal dream was put on hold. That afternoon, after driving to Cordova, a Memphis, Tennessee, suburb, they parked in front of a vacant house, court records show.

Fisher left Pettit in the car, walked across the street and attempted to rob a woman as she was unloading groceries in her garage.

Fisher planned to steal power tools from the garage and then pawn them for the $50 he needed for gas to make it to Florida, he said in an interview for this story.

But the woman’s husband chased Fisher and Pettit away. The couple were quickly caught by authorities with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department. Records show Pettit spent three months in jail, pleaded guilty to a facilitation to commit robbery charge and received two years of probation.

Fisher pleaded guilty to attempted robbery, and he was found guilty of escaping from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, yet again triggering the state’s habitual offender law.

Typically, the sentence for a prison escape would range from two to seven years. But because Fisher had already been convicted of multiple felonies, the law allowed for the punishment to be multiplied. The range suddenly rose to six years to life.

Fisher got life.

“I cried and thought about suicide,” Fisher said, adding, “How could they have given me life for escape?”

 

Eyewitness I.D.
Fisher maintains he was involved in three of the five purse snatchings he was convicted of, but his role was limited to driving his accomplices or standing as a lookout. “I … never actually robbed nobody,” he said in an interview for this story, while acknowledging he was complicit because he knew what his friends were up to.

Marvin Lindsey
Marvin Lindsey says he committed the crime that Rodney Fisher was wrongfully convicted of. Lindsey is serving time for an unrelated offense. (Oklahoma Department of Corrections photo)

The accomplices, Tyrone Brown and Marvin Lindsey, submitted affidavits swearing that Fisher had no role in the O’Connor crime. That case gave Fisher his third strike. Lindsey, who is serving time in the same prison as Fisher for an unrelated offense, admitted in his affidavit to committing the crime; he wasn’t convicted of it, according to his department of corrections record. In his affidavit, Brown said he was driving a tan car while someone else snatched O’Connor’s purse and Fisher was not present. Fisher tried to challenge his conviction based on the affidavits but the court denied his request.

Fisher’s conviction in the O’Connor case, which gave him the third strike, was largely based on eyewitness identification. In court proceedings, he’s challenged the way he was picked out as the perpetrator of the purse snatchings. Tulsa police did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.

Records show one of the detectives involved in Fisher’s case administered some of the witness’ viewings of the photo array, which violates generally accepted practices today. Authorities, understanding that eyewitness identification is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, often try to avoid involving an officer who might, even unintentionally through body language or verbal cues, tip off victims to the prime suspect.

“How he could influence the process is really the issue,” said Robert William Shomer, a psychologist and eyewitness perception expert.

Records also show several victims of the purse snatchings spoke with one another immediately after viewing the lineup, which experts say raises another red flag.

Eyre-Reid testified she spoke with two of the other victims and told them whom she had selected from the lineup. O’Connor also testified victims spoke with one another about their attacks.

“[I]f people are getting feedback about their identification … it can make them more confident, make them think they got a better look and it can affect their memory,” said Elizabeth Loftus, an eyewitness identification expert at the University of California, Irvine.

In her testimony, Ness said the men in the lineup were of different heights and only one was clean shaven: Fisher. That’s who Ness identified as her assailant. O’Connor, who viewed the same lineup, said the men were all clean shaven except one with a mustache.

“You can’t have one person sticking out more so than others … ,” Shomer said. “ … It’s not just the physical description. There are also other elements, but the bottom-line principle is you want a valid test. You can only have a valid test if nobody sticks out like a sore thumb and all of the alternatives fit the initial description to the same extent.”

 

Excessive or deserved?
Oklahoma has reduced sentences for nonviolent drug crimes and raised the threshold that would constitute a felony property crime as part of a package of House bills Gov. Fallin signed into law in April. More reform may be coming; in November, voters will be presented with a state referendum. Part of it aims to reduce sentences for property crimes not impacted by the new law and to reclassify simple drug possession charges as misdemeanors rather than felonies.

H.E. “Gene” Rainbolt is chairman of BancFirst Corp. (Photo courtesy of University of Oklahoma)
H.E. “Gene” Rainbolt, chairman of BancFirst Corp., says the state is “running a felony factory.” (Photo courtesy of University of Oklahoma)

Steele, who runs Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a coalition of community leaders, championed the ballot initiative at a recent Tulsa town hall meeting at the University of Tulsa College of Law. He said the proposed legislation would ease prison overcrowding while another panelist, H.E. “Gene” Rainbolt, chairman of BancFirst Corp., said the state is “running a felony factory” because it doesn’t address the root causes of crime. “Even Texas is doing more than we are,” Rainbolt said, adding that the referendum is “a modest first step” for Oklahoma reform.

Sitting in the audience of about 100 citizens, Norm Smaligo, a member of the Oklahoma Retail Crime Association, a coalition of law enforcement and retailers, wasn’t convinced. He said he’s concerned the proposed legislation will encourage crime because shoplifters know they can steal more before facing a felony conviction. As it is, he said, the punishment for misdemeanor theft parallels that for a traffic ticket, and shoplifters will steal again, sometimes within a few hours.

Kayla Cannon, a recent law school graduate who also attended the town hall meeting, said she is more concerned about the underlying cause of such crimes. “You have a habitual offender statute, but you don’t provide the services for the people to get help so they can quit being a habitual offender,” said the 27-year-old intern at the Tulsa Public Defender’s Office.

Steele, a former Methodist minister from Shawnee and veteran of the state’s conservative politics, said he understands why Fisher was given life for his crimes. But he said Fisher’s sentence “seems excessive” compared to those convicted of more violent crimes, like murder.

The cost to incarcerate an inmate at Fisher’s prison is at least about $15,000 a year, according to the state’s department of corrections. For Fisher, that would add up to about $450,000 so far.

Kunzweiler, the Tulsa County district attorney, offered a different perspective: “Why is it that anybody would want to reform a statute that clearly dealt with one of society’s worst offenders in the most appropriate manner? Because there’s no doubt in my mind Mr. Fisher got exactly what he deserved.”

Steele isn’t sure when—or if—Oklahoma will seek to reform sentencing guidelines for violent crimes.

Harris, the former district attorney, believes Oklahoma is making headway in reforming sentences for nonviolent crimes but any reforms for sentences for violent crimes are at least five to seven years away.

“If you’re in the legislature and you’re trying to get re-elected, if somebody puts the moniker on you, ‘Soft on crime,’ you really don’t go well in Oklahoma,” Harris said, adding, “So do I think it’s worthy? Yes. Do I think the timing is right? No, I don’t. We’re not there yet.”

davis-correctional-center
Davis Correctional Facility, where Rodney Fisher is incarcerated, in central Oklahoma. (Yaqoob Qaseem/The Medill Justice Project)

 

Different meaning
On a recent day in a visitation room at Davis Correctional Facility, what stands out about 52-year-old Fisher are three deep wrinkles high up on his forehead.

It’s been nearly 30 years since the purse snatchings.

Fisher has fallen out of touch with most of his family; he knows his mother only through the occasional letter or phone call.

“A lot of [the memories] … have faded, it’s just a lot of pieces and glimpses of memories of being at home, cooking,” Fisher said.

Other memories stick. He sings a song from his church choir days: “Faith, faith, faith, just a little bit of faith—it don’t take a whole lot, just use the little you’ve got…”

Under Oklahoma’s habitual offender law, Rodney Fisher, 52, is serving a life sentence for a series of purse snatchings in the 1980s and a prison escape in 2004. Fisher said he couldn’t believe “they would sentence me so harshly, like I shot somebody or something.” (Kara Stevick/The Medill Justice Project)
Under Oklahoma’s habitual offender law, Rodney Fisher, 52, is serving a life sentence for a series of purse snatchings in the 1980s and a prison escape in 2004. Fisher said he couldn’t believe “they would sentence me so harshly, like I shot somebody or something.” (Kara Stevick/The Medill Justice Project)

The words mean something different now; when he was young, it was easy for him to put faith “aside and do what you want to do … But as you get older, you start to reflect on some of what you were taught when you were younger, what’s important in life.”

Inmates of Fisher’s age are generally at a lower risk of committing crimes again, experts note.

“What’s been shown is that people generally will commit crimes at a young age and then they move away from that kind of behavior as they get older,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that advocates for criminal justice reform. “There’s all kinds of evidence that we’re holding people in prison for beyond the time that is necessary to actually keep society safe from that individual. … When people get to be seniors, there are all kinds of physical, biological constraints that they face in order to be able to do the same stuff that they were doing when they were younger and tougher and stronger.”

Fisher is not eligible for parole until February 2030, when he will be 66. “I’m not a violent person,” he said. “I’m not a threat to society … I’m too old to do a lot of things. I just want to go out there and work and be a productive member of society, and I believe I can do that.”

 

mjp-logookj2-logoThis investigation was conducted by three undergraduate interns at The Medill Justice Project under the guidance of Northwestern University Professor Alec Klein, director of MJP; Amanda Westrich, director of operations at MJP; and MJP associates Allisha Azlan and Rachel Fobar. MJP intern Jasper Scherer and Kevin Armstrong, founder of Oklahoma Journalists for Justice, also contributed to this report.