When Sasha Ayala-Harris was released from the Tulsa County jail, the first thing she did was walk to the Subway near Fourth and Main streets to get lunch. But she took her lunch back to the jail parking lot to eat just in case her friend Kristi Flowers — who was arrested with her in Broken Arrow last month — managed to get out, too.
The two were among dozens of people who appeared by video on an emergency criminal docket over which Associate District Judge Cliff Smith presided Thursday. Presiding District Judge William LaFortune had authorized the docket Wednesday amid the continued shutdown of operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chief Public Defender Corbin Brewster said the emergency court settings Thursday led to the release of 37 people who had been jailed for nonviolent felonies and another 30 in custody for misdemeanors.
“She was on a different (jail) pod than me, and I don’t want to leave her hanging,” Ayala-Harris told the Tulsa World of going back for her friend, who was granted release on a personal recognizance bond while she contests the case.
Ayala-Harris, who was first on the docket, accepted an offer of a four-year suspended prison sentence for property crimes.
When discussing the specialized docket, which she learned about via a late-night email from a public defender, Ayala-Harris said, “I’ve never seen anything like this, like even with the ice storm.”
“It’s so hard in there to know what’s going on. We didn’t realize how bad (COVID-19) was getting,” she said. “Even though we have access to TVs and stuff, it’s hard to hear, and you can only watch at certain times, so you don’t really fully know what’s going on.”
By the end of the day Thursday — after Tulsa County reported its first death related to COVID-19 — LaFortune had signed an order closing all Tulsa County judicial offices and courts through April 20. Judges and their staffs can work remotely “if they see fit,” the order says.
However, Brewster said, “I cannot shut the Public Defender’s Office down when people continue to be arrested and show up in our jail.”
To conduct the docket Thursday, his office had four staff members at the jail and another half-dozen in court. Roughly a half-dozen prosecutors also were in the courtroom.
“The criminal justice system, in many important respects, has been suspended,” Brewster said of the situation, saying he will continue to push for dockets like the one Smith held.
“These are people who would not have their day in court under the current circumstances. We were able to get them into court, get hearings, and these people are getting out who would have sat there and suffered with the suspension of court dockets.”
District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler told the World on Tuesday that his office was working with the Public Defender’s Office to identify people jailed on “probation-eligible” offenses. In doing so, he said he wanted his staff to prioritize those who are “real public safety threats” and not to call for arrest warrants for those accused of “technical” probation violations, such as failure to pay.
Of the 37 releases on the felony docket Thursday, 28 — including Ayala-Harris — followed some form of plea negotiations with the District Attorney’s Office. Special Judge April Seibert handled eligible misdemeanor cases on another docket.
The others were personal recognizance releases, based on a promise to appear. Seven additional people on the docket accepted pleas resulting in prison time, while two people won bond reductions.
Eleven defendants will undergo further review after prosecutors objected to the public defenders’ request for personal recognizance bonds, Brewster said. Smith outright denied five requests for release on personal recognizance following prosecutors’ objection.
Gary Poindexter of Coweta was another of the group who left the jail Thursday, paperback Holy Bible in tow, after being in custody on a stolen vehicle charge. Smith authorized a two-year suspended sentence in Poindexter’s case and dismissed two other charges against him pursuant to a plea agreement.
Outside the jail, Poindexter showed off a tattoo on his ring finger and said his release means he can now get married.
“I was in there since the 21st of last month,” he said. “I’m feeling blessed. Feeling blessed.”
When asked why the emergency dockets were important, Brewster said the bulk of those in custody in the Tulsa County jail are accused of nonviolent crimes. He said the results of the docket show that even the prosecution agreed that his office’s clients were suitable for sentences that don’t include prison time.
“When people are trying to mitigate the spread of a serious virus, it would be inhumane to hold people and incarcerate them and subject them to exposure when they shouldn’t be incarcerated in the first place,” Brewster said.
Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Casey Roebuck said Tuesday that there is no evidence that anyone in the jail had been exposed to COVID-19, but she said there is ample space to quarantine detainees if needed.
Kunzweiler issued a statement Thursday afternoon applauding his staff, judges and defense attorneys for their work to expedite the release of probation-eligible defendants. He said he anticipates other occasions of re-examining the jail population to see whether further cases can be resolved through specialized dockets.
“Usually they would have given me fines,” Ayala-Harris said of her case. “My attorney argued that … even if I had a job it would be in the customer service area, and those places aren’t open. So they didn’t give me no fines. I’m really thankful for that.”
Kunzweiler said Americans are “united under a system of justice which is second to none in the world.”
“We respect the rule of law, and we stand up for justice and against injustice. It is what defines us as a nation,” he said.
“Continue to pray for those who are less fortunate than us — those who live in environments of limited resources, oppression, famine and war,” Kunzweiler said. “We need to continue to lead, and the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office will continue to do its part.”