Sentencing Reforms for Domestic Abuse Survivors Derail in Oklahoma

Stories from imprisoned survivors had inspired legislation to reduce sentences for people whose convictions stemmed from their abuse.

Victoria Law   |    May 30, 2023

Advocates and families of survivors of domestic abuse in prison went to the Oklahoma capitol to lobby lawmakers for reform legislation. (Photo courtesy Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice)

April Wilkens was 28 years old in 1998, when police arrested and charged her with first-degree murder for fatally shooting a man who had repeatedly stalked, harassed, assaulted and raped her. 

Wilkens had called police multiple times on her ex-boyfriend, Terry Carlton, and had obtained two protective orders against him. But he came from an influential Tulsa family, and police seemed to rarely get in his way. She says she shot him one night in self-defense, after he had already raped, handcuffed, and threatened to sodomize and kill her, at one point holding a gun to her head. When Wilkens went to trial, her lawyer failed to obtain or introduce several pieces of evidence of the ongoing abuse, according to her clemency application, including an audio tape recording where Carlton admitted to beating and strangling her. She was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Wilkens, now 53, has spent nearly half of her life behind bars. 

Troubled by Wilkens’ story, last year Oklahoma state Representative Toni Hasenbeck helped lead a legislative study of sentencing reforms for survivors of domestic violence whose abuse played a role in their conviction. This year Hasenbeck, a Republican, filed House Bill 1639, the Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act, to give criminalized survivors like Wilkens a chance at release. As introduced, the act capped prison terms at 10 years for people convicted of crimes against an abusive partner, and allowed survivors already serving lengthy or life sentences like Wilkens to retroactively seek resentencing and release.

Wilkens said the bill felt like a ray of hope. “It could mean a life sentence won’t mean death by incarceration for me,” she told Bolts. “It could mean I won’t die in a cage. I could start making up for lost time with my family and friends. He had to grow up without his mom. My son was seven when I was locked up. He’s 32 now and has a four-year-old daughter.”  

As the bill wound through the Oklahoma legislature this year, Wilkens helped spread the word about the bill inside the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, Oklahoma’s largest women’s prison, urging other women there to tell their families and friends to advocate for the legislation. She also generated and distributed a survey, asking women inside about the role of abuse in their convictions; 156 women responded identifying as survivors of trauma and violence.

But in March, Hasenbeck significantly amended the bill ahead of its vote in the Oklahoma House, Mother Jones reported, effectively gutting it. According to the Oklahoman, the state’s influential District Attorneys Council pushed for a watered-down version that would not have helped Wilkens or any other survivors currently in prison, simply giving judges discretion to impose lighter sentences for people convicted of crimes against abusive partners in the future. 

Even that weakened bill did not make it through the session. After the House unanimously passed it in March and the Senate approved an amended version in April, advocates, including family members of survivors, pleaded with lawmakers to put retroactivity back in. But lawmakers did not budge in preparing a final version, and then they did not even schedule a final vote on it by the end of the session last week.  

Wilkens told Bolts she had mixed feelings about the whittled-down bill. “If what I’ve gone through can help keep future domestic violence survivors from languishing in prison, it will be worth it,” Wilkens said. “On the other hand, it felt like a kick in the gut. Those of us who are already in prison want to feel like our lives—and our families’ lives—matter, too.”

Amanda Ross was seven years old when Wilkens was arrested. Her mother, Wilkens’ sister, had always encouraged her to write letters to her imprisoned aunt, but as a child, Ross only had a dim understanding of why she was behind bars. 

Wilkens, who was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, first became eligible for parole in 2013, after serving 15 years in prison. That year, at her parole hearing, Carlton’s father protested her release and she was denied parole. In 2016, the parole board didn’t even grant her a hearing. That was when Ross, by then in her twenties, became involved. 

“I started a blog to post her commutation application,” she told Bolts. From there, she began gathering other court documents, including Wilkens’ numerous appeals and court transcripts. “I was scanning the documents trying to get her an attorney,” she recalled. 

At first, Ross didn’t fully understand what she was looking at, but reading and scanning gave her a crash course in what had happened to Wilkens. She turned the records into a chronology so others could understand her aunt’s decades-long ordeal through the legal system. 

Wilkens’ niece posted details of her case and letters online to raise awareness of her case and the issue (instagram/freeaprilwilkens)

In 2019, the board granted Wilkens a hearing only to again deny her parole. By 2022, Wilkens had spent 24 years in prison and was once again up for parole. This time, Ross enlisted the help of Project Commutation, which provides free legal representation to people serving excessive sentences, but the board again denied Wilkens a hearing. 

Wilkins’ story is far from unique. The nexus between domestic violence and incarceration is so common that advocates have coined a term for people who have endured it, calling them criminalized survivors. And Oklahoma’s criminal legal system has long been particularly harsh to women. For decades, it had the nation’s highest female incarceration rate; as of 2021, the state trails only Idaho and Montana for this dubious distinction.

Through other activists, Ross connected with Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and eventually lawyers with the organization launched a 12-episode podcast detailing Wilkens’ case. They named it Panic Button, after an actual panic button that Wilkens wore around her neck in an attempt to stop Carlton’s attacks. 

Oklahoma Appleseed lawyers also worked with Hasenbeck on her legislative study, putting together the research and speakers for a September 2022 presentation to the justice and judiciary committee of the Oklahoma House, where they also outlined Wilkens’ story of abuse, survival and incarceration. Other presenters highlighted the outsized impact of criminal punishment on women of color in the state; according to state and federal data, Black and Indigenous women each accounted for 18 percent of Oklahoma’s women’s prison population in 2021, despite accounting for just 7 and 8 percent of the general population in the state, respectively.  

The following year, Hasenbeck introduced the Oklahoma Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act. Colleen McCarty, one of the Oklahoma Appleseed lawyers pushing for the bill, begged lawmakers to reconsider after they stripped the provision letting it apply to previous convictions, pointing them again to the cases of Wilkens and other survivors. In an open letter she posted in March, McCarty said Oklahomans have proven supportive of retroactive sentencing reforms. In 2016, voters approved two ballot initiatives aimed at reducing prison sentences for people with certain non-violent convictions, which eventually led to one of the largest mass commutations in the nation’s history. (Hasenbeck didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.)

“Those cases were for low-level drug and property crimes. These survivors’ crimes that could be impacted by HB 1639 are crimes of ‘it was him or me,’” McCarty wrote. “They are crimes of people who resorted to violence when the system gave them no other choice. These survivors deserve the safety and freedom they couldn’t get anywhere else in Oklahoma—not at home, not at church, not at the police station, and not in the courthouse.”

Renetta Boyd had never engaged in any type of political organizing until she learned about the Oklahoma Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act. 

Renetta’s daughter, Keabreauna Boyd, is serving a 20-year prison sentence for the 2020 death of her boyfriend, which followed years of her being abused by him. Keabreauna was eight months pregnant and had tried moving to get away from him, but that didn’t stop the abuse. She says he charged at her with a knife during a fight before she wrestled it away and killed him with it in self-defense. After her arrest for murder, Keaubreauna gave birth handcuffed to a bed without family present, despite 2018 legislation prohibiting restraints and allowing family during labor and delivery. That was the last time she saw or touched her baby.

Renetta distinctly remembers attending her daughter’s 2021 sentencing hearing because it was the last time she saw her; because Renetta is currently on parole, she must receive special approval to visit her daughter and she hasn’t yet been allowed visits. The mother and daughter have kept in touch for the past two years through weekly phone calls and biweekly letters.

Renetta and nine of her family members attended a rally at the Oklahoma capitol last month, where she was joined by other relatives of incarcerated survivors of domestic abuse, asking lawmakers to restore the retroactive parts of the Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act. 

Renetta says she feels lucky she didn’t lose her daughter or the baby during the assault. But she says her grandchildren need their mother home; Keabreauna has four other children in addition to the baby born in jail. “I feel like this law should pass so that my daughter could get back home with my grandchildren because they’ve never been away from her a day [before her arrest],” Renetta told Bolts. “She needs a chance to raise her children.”

“If you’re fighting for your life, you shouldn’t be punished,” Keabreauna told Bolts in a call from prison. “Everybody has the right to fight for their lives.” 

Oklahoma’s bill wasn’t the first to address the intersection of abuse and incarceration. New York passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act in 2019, and since then 40 incarcerated people have been resentenced . In Louisiana, a similar bill filed this year faced intense opposition from the district attorneys’ association, Bolts reported in April; it too was amended earlier this month to exclude resentencing for survivors currently behind bars. 

After Oklahoma lawmakers removed retroactivity from this year’s reform bill, advocates ratcheted up efforts to rally around survivors and tell their stories to lawmakers in hopes of passing reforms that could help them. In March, Oklahoma Appleseed held an art and advocacy day at the state capitol building, where artists created pieces based on survivors’ stories while advocates engaged passersby about the issue. The following day, advocates brought the pieces to Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, holding them up outside so that incarcerated women could see them. Both Wilkens and Boyd saw the pieces from their window; Boyd excitedly told her mother later that she had seen the art and noticed her portrait within one of the pieces.

Supporters for April Wilkens posted fliers around Tulsa (instagram/freeaprilwilkens)

Ross says she visited the state capitol four times over the past two months to meet with lawmakers. While she had previously participated in marches and rallies for other causes, this was the first time she had joined a coalition working towards a specific outcome, and the first time she had advocated for a change that was so personal. 

“It’s affirming,” she told Bolts. “All this time, I was struggling to get someone to listen.” Now, after so many years, advocates, other domestic violence survivors and even lawmakers are doing so.

“It really made me feel less alone,” she added.

Ross continues to advocate for reforms that apply retroactively, pushing for a pathway out of prison for her aunt and others incarcerated because of the abuse they endured. “We’ve carried the bill on the backs of these women who are incarcerated, on their stories,” she said. “I don’t think legislators realize that the bill has gotten this far because we’ve pushed their stories.” 

From prison, Wilkens continues to share her story, publishing op-eds in local newspapers to urge lawmakers to pass sentencing reforms that apply retroactively to cases like hers. 

McCarty with Oklahoma Appleseed told Bolts she was “extremely disappointed in the failure to advance HB 1639” but also said the final version of the bill “didn’t accomplish any of the goals that the coalition set out to accomplish when we embarked on this survivor justice journey.”

At the same time, she said that advocacy and educational efforts around the bill engaged many Oklahomans who had never before been part of the political process before—and that they intend to continue building the campaign before the next legislative session begins.

“I hope that criminalized survivors know that we’re not giving up,” McCarty said. “This is a much bigger issue than we even realized when we started this.”