A man will continue his life sentence for a non-violent drug crime after the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board voted to deny him parole on Tuesday, despite advocacy from Gov. Mary Fallin that he be released.
Larry Yarbrough, 66, of Kingfisher, has served 20 years of a life sentence after he was caught with three marijuana joints and an ounce of cocaine in 1995, while he operated a BBQ restaurant. He was sentenced two years later to life without parole.
According to the board, that conviction was his fifth drug related conviction.
The board reduced his sentence earlier this year making him eligible for parole by voting 4-1. A parole grant would have allowed him to be released within 30 days, but on Tuesday, the members of the board denied his release unanimously with a 5-0 vote.
The board hearing was attended by more than a dozen friends and family members of Yarbrough. Yarbrough was seen via video feed from prison, accompanied by two of his daughters. He told the board he planned on moving in with one of his daughters either in Oklahoma or California upon his release.
Many in the room were visibly upset with the board’s decision, shaking their heads in disbelief. One woman who was gathering her things could be heard saying “I hate these people.”
“I feel like I'm gut kicked,” Dennis Will said. “I don't know what they're basing their decision on.”
Will was a juror in Yarbrough’s case and has been an advocate for his clemency for decades.
Yarbrough is in failing health, according to Mark Faulk.
Faulk is a documentarian-turned-activist for Yarbrough’s cause. Faulk is the creator of “Voices in a Jailhouse” in which Yarbrough was featured. He spoke at the hearing in support Yarbrough calling his advocacy “a labor of love.”
“For a man of Larry's caliber to die in prison for a non-violent drug offense is a criminal act itself,” Faulk said. “They should be ashamed of themselves.”
Yarbrough told the board he suffered a major heart attack last year. Faulk and other family members said they were not sure if Yarbrough would survive another year in prison.
Fallin also advocated for his release in a statement on Monday.
“[Yarbrough] was sentenced at a time when Oklahoma’s drug laws were overly harsh, when jurors had no choice but to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He has completed behavior modification, anger management and other life skills programs during his 20 years in prison without drawing a single misconduct citation from prison officials. He has earned the opportunity to be considered for parole.”
When asked for a response to the denial, the governor’s Communications Director Michael McNutt said via email, “we’ll pass on commenting.”
Yarbrough is hardly alone in his sentence. As many as 50 non-violent drug offenders are serving similar sentences in Oklahoma right now. But, the ruling was surprising given major pushes at the Capitol to reform Oklahoma's justice system.
Reforms were a major portion of Fallin’s 2015 inaugural address and this year’s state of the state vision, including changes to mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
Several pieces of reform legislation have been passed this session in an effort to modernize Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, according to the Fallin.
Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh has also stated in the past he would like to see sentencing reforms as well.
However other advocates for reform, like Faulk, say those efforts under the Capitol dome are empty promises.
“When we talk about prison reform in Oklahoma, it's all talk. When you recommend reducing sentences and then you let a man die in prison on a life sentence on a non-violent drug offense that is not drug reform. That is archaic. That is inhumane,” he said.
Yarbrough could be up for parole again in one year.