An Oklahoma inmate profiled in a Tulsa World story examining the state’s high female incarceration rate has prompted a groundswell of support ranging from attorney services to an online petition circulating across the globe.
By Ginnie Graham | Published in Tulsa World
Patricia M. Spottedcrow of Kingfisher was featured in a Tulsa World article on Feb. 20 and published in media across the state through the nonprofit journalism group Oklahoma Watch.
The 25-year-old received a 12-year prison sentence in October after selling a total of $31 in marijuana to a police informant in December 2009 and January 2010. Her mother, Delita Starr, was also charged.
In blind guilty pleas before a judge, Spottedcrow received prison time while her mother received a 30-year suspended sentence.
The judge said Spottedcrow’s four young children being in the home at the time of the drug buys prompted the higher sentences.
Neither she nor her mother had prior criminal convictions.
The judge said in a previous interview that first-time offenders are not usually sent to prison. Instead, other alternatives including treatment, are typically found.
Oklahoma City attorney Josh Welch read the story and said he decided to represent her without charge.
“I’m familiar with that county and had other cases there and what happened is so egregious and wrong,” Welch said.
Spottedcrow must serve at least 50 percent of her sentence before being eligible for parole, Welch said.
When Spottedcrow was taken from court to the jail to start her prison sentence, some marijuana was found in her jacket pocket.
She received a two-year concurrent sentence for drug possession.
A state Department of Corrections presentencing report stated Spottedcrow was highly likely to reoffend and did not seem to take the charges seriously.
“Let’s say everything said about this woman is true. … It’s barbaric and prehistoric to have a 12-year sentence for that and have to serve 50 percent,” Welch said. “It’s illogical.”
Welch said Oklahoma law allows the judge in pleas such as this to retain jurisdiction for up to one year.
The associate judge who sentenced Spottedcrow has retired after more than two decades on the bench.
“She has a right to a sentence review one year from the date of the sentence, and the judge has the authority and discretion to suspend or modify the sentence,” he said. “We hope for some realistic expectation and a rational approach.”
At least three Facebook pages, an online petition and Twitter account have been established to support Spottedcrow and spread her story.
“This is not a one-issue type of case,” Welch said. “There are a lot of different groups identifying with what is wrong with this sentence. From a lawyer’s perspective, it’s an unjust sentence. Other groups look at it from issues of women in prison, marijuana laws, families and children being split apart or simply just a crazy, draconian sentence.”
Eric Sterling, president of the Maryland-based nonprofit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, had inquired about helping her find counsel and has spoken with Welch.
“The injustice of her case is an extreme instance of what are common miscarriages of justice,” Sterling stated in an e-mail. “This sentence strikes me as so disproportionately long as to smack of barbarism. This is not the sentence that a civilized society would impose for such conduct. This is not a crime so heinous and unusual that a long sentence is warranted.”
Sterling said he has concerns about poor people and minorities not receiving fair treatment in courts and among law enforcement.
Spottedcrow is an American Indian who was unemployed at the time of her arrest.
“I am hopeful that reasonable criminal justice personnel will consider that the time that she has already spent in prison has adequately conveyed the lesson that selling marijuana can utterly disrupt her life and endanger her children, and will agree to a sentence that will permit her immediate release,” Sterling stated.
California resident Jeff J. Jonaitis started a petition on change.org to ask Gov. Mary Fallin to commute the sentence to “a more reasonable and humane punishment.”
Jonaitis, who has family members living in Oklahoma, said he believes a more appropriate sentence would have been community service and probation.
“A fire started inside me and it’s still burning,” he stated in an e-mail. “I have not slept much since reading her story. I believe a punishment should fit the crime and not be a crime in itself. … I hope her children don’t go 10 years without their mother.”
Starr, who is taking care of Spottedcrow’s four children, was surprised at the public reaction.
“I don’t have a computer, but at least it’s got people talking,” Starr said. “It’s all over now and everybody knows. Everyone seems to be talking about it, but I’ve seen no change yet.”
After the story was published, Starr said officials from the county’s Republican and Democrat parties visited her.
“They said she was treated unfairly and wanted to find some way to investigate it,” Starr said. “People are real concerned about it.”
Starr works at a gas station and is working to pay off about $8,300 in court fines and fees.
“I have hope,” Starr said. “We’ve already made changes. We go to church every day and pray to God. We are drug-free here. I don’t allow any of that around, no matter what. I hope Tricia will come home, get a job and work to support her kids.”