Tulsa private investigator Eric Cullen has always known there are people in Oklahoma’s prisons who shouldn’t be there.
He instigated or aided in several exonerations in Tulsa County including Michelle Murphy, released in 2014, and Malcolm Scott and De’Marcho Carpenter in 2016. All served 20 years in prisons for crimes they didn’t commit.
Through the years, Cullen has done pro bono work on behalf of incarcerated people who he believed were innocent or had unfair sentences.
“But I’ve been overloaded,” he said.
Earlier this year, he got a surprise call that is leading to a new nonprofit focusing on reducing the prison population by re-examining who is serving time.
The launch of Another Chance Justice Project is underway by targeting women in Oklahoma’s two largest prisons who meet certain criteria.
This fits a missing gap in the criminal justice reform effort. Many programs and groups emphasize prison alternatives through community courts, treatment and sentence reductions.
Not many are reviewing cases, particularly of long-time prisoners, who may have received unjust or harsh sentences.
“In places like Tulsa County we’ve stopped digging the hole we’re in, but the hole is still there,” Cullen said.
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On the night of the Academy Awards, Cullen received a text message from Murphy. She had been invited to the Oscars by a music executive who had profiled her earlier on a podcast about wrongly convicted people.
Lava Records founder Jason Flom — who has also served as chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, Virgin Records and the Capitol Music Group — has been involved in philanthropic support and advocacy of criminal justice reform since the early 90s.
Flom is a founding board member of the Innocence Project and founding benefactor of The Bronx Freedom Fund. He serves on boards of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, The Legal Action Center, the Drug Policy Alliance and the NYU Prison Education Program.
He has brought national exposure to innocence cases, including that of Murphy, who was freed after newly discovered DNA evidence in her infant son’s stabbing death resulted in a vacated conviction.
“I have respect and affection for Michelle, and she calls me ‘uncle.’ And I feel like she’s a niece,” Flom said in a telephone interview.
Murphy made a text-message introduction of Flom to Cullen on Oscar night. At 7 a.m. Hollywood time the next morning, the two spoke for the first time.
“He got right to the point,” Cullen said. “He wanted to do something about Oklahoma’s female incarceration and wanted to know what he could do.”
Flom has had success going the clemency route for cases with extraordinary sentences or with extenuating circumstances. He said he is directly responsible for dozens of clemencies and indirectly in more than 1,000 approved clemencies.
“It’s always an uphill battle,” Flom said. “These are people who just need a chance. They are not bad people.”
Flom has spoken with U.S. presidents and governors through the decades, calling the swelling prison population “big government at its worst.”
“Ninety percent of incarcerated people are in state prisons and local jails,” he said. “So we have to continue reform efforts in states to make a big difference. And people are jumping on the bandwagon from all political ideologies, liberal to conservative.”
Oklahoma has been the nation’s leader in female incarceration since at least 1991 and is No. 2 in overall incarceration. The state is expected to be No. 1 by the year’s end.
To best tackle this iceberg, the two decided the program would focus on women.
“I understand in many ways it is the most regressive state in the whole country, and that’s saying a lot,” Flom said. “The U.S. is the incarceration capital of the world. We have 4 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
“It’s worse when you get inside the numbers. The U.S. has 33 percent of the world’s female prisoners, and Oklahoma has three times the national rate.
“If the nation incarcerated women at the rate of Oklahoma, we’d have 70 percent of all the world’s female prisoners. It’s just so nuts.”
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In the next few weeks, women at Mabel Bassett and Eddie Warrior prisons will be getting a letter explaining the program.
One track, expected to be the busiest, will focus on clemency. Another will take on innocence cases, but those take longer with higher legal bars to meet.
The prisoners will need to provide quite a bit of information including evidence used at trial, prosecutor and judge names, mitigating factors and criminal history.
Cullen said he checked to ensure the prisons’ law libraries have capacity to help inmates do this basic research.
“We are going to help these women help themselves,” Cullen. “Our goal is to have as many packages as possible ready and prepared for clemency by the end of October.”
The program is starting with five paid staff, three volunteers and a board of advisors made up mostly of attorneys. The IRS nonprofit paperwork will be filed in the next few months, Cullen said.
Partnerships have been forged with other criminal justice groups including OKCure, Stand in the Gap and the grassroots contingent led by former House Speaker Kris Steele.
Currently, the team has identified four inmates to seek clemency: A woman serving time for drug trafficking, another for child abuse and two first-degree murder cases.
There will be plenty of others to choose from.
Last year, a Tulsa World analysis found that 57 inmates were serving life without parole sentences for nonviolent crimes. Many were drug offenders sentenced under the 1987 “three strikes” law, which was changed in 2016.
Cullen is confident Gov. Mary Fallin will consider the clemency cases before leaving office.
“I’m hopeful this will set the stage for the next governor,” he said. “We are in the middle of a wind-shift on this issue. It’s undeniable.”