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The prosecutor who put her away says she should be free, but she's still in prison

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. But are there some people in prison who shouldn't be? That is the argument that one former Oklahoma prosecutor is making about a woman he helped put in jail back in the 1990s. Elizabeth Caldwell with Public Radio Tulsa has the story.

ELIZABETH CALDWELL, BYLINE: Mike Sullivan was the district attorney in the LeFlore County on the Arkansas border for eight years in the 1990s.

MILE SULLIVAN: Well, I've held 23 murder cases in my career.

CALDWELL: But there's one case in particular that still bothers him.

SULLIVAN: I remember she was a small, petite-type woman. I think - believe she was 38 years old when we tried her.

CALDWELL: He's talking about Cathy Lamb. Her life changed forever on the night of April 27, 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMY GRANT'S "BABY BABY")

CALDWELL: Back then, Amy Grant was all over the radio with her song "Baby Baby." But in the darker corners of America's collective consciousness, fears about violent crime dominated. The New York Times was reporting about a record number of murders in that city. Prison sentences had gotten longer nationally, and they were about to get longer still. The fears of the '90s were felt from Washington, D.C., all the way to eastern Oklahoma, where Cathy Lamb lived in 1991.

CATHY LAMB: Very difficult to relive the worst day of my life, but if it will help somebody else, I'll do it.

CALDWELL: Lamb now lives at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud. On a spring evening about 30 years ago, she went to a bar in the tiny town of Bokoshe to get something to eat with her boyfriend, Chris Neilson. As they were leaving, Neilson got into a fight.

LAMB: And somebody at the other end of the bar hollered at him. And so he went back. And, I mean, all hell broke loose. I couldn't even see what was going on. But I knew there was some kind of fighting going on. And I was getting out of there, so I took off toward the door.

CALDWELL: Eventually, Lamb made it to the parking lot with Nielson not far behind. By then, Lamb, who was not drinking, had a gun in her hand. She sometimes kept it in her purse for protection. As she moved through the parking lot toward her pickup truck, a group of young people hanging out across the street started to heckle drunk and bleeding Nielson.

LAMB: Of course, he was already in a belligerent mood. And he started hollering back at them. And I kept telling him, come on and get in the truck or I'm going to run off and leave you.

CALDWELL: But before they could get inside, a man crossed the street. Twenty-three-year-old Darrell Lovell was 5'10" and almost 200 pounds.

LAMB: I turned back around and took maybe a step, and the guy was there. And he was trying to go around me. And I said, man, let us leave. I said, we don't want any more problems. Just let me get him out of here. And he said, shut up, b****, and shoved me in the face.

CALDWELL: And that's when Lamb says she unintentionally shot Lovell in the head. Lamb then fled because an angry mob was forming. She tried to turn herself in right away, but she says Neilson stopped her.

LAMB: And so when we got into town, I started to go to the police station. And he grabbed me by the hair. Now, you take me - you take me to your house right now.

CALDWELL: A few hours later, while the police were looking for a different Cathy Lamb, she turned herself in and confessed.

LAMB: Because I did do it. I never denied that I did. I never said I didn't do it. I knew I did it. And I always owned that I did it.

CALDWELL: And this is where District Attorney Mike Sullivan enters the picture. While she was waiting in jail, he offered her a deal. If she pled guilty, she would spend 25 years in prison. But Lamb's lawyer turned it down.

SULLIVAN: He nonchalantly threw it off. I'll put it that way. I don't know that he actually laughed at us or not, but he nonchalantly cast the offer away.

CALDWELL: Lamb said she rejected the deal because she thought what she did was self-defense. She had no prior criminal record. But as it was, Sullivan prosecuted Cathy Lamb to the fullest extent of the law. And just when he was making his closing arguments in court, the infant son of the victim started to wail.

SULLIVAN: Worst (inaudible) for Cathy Lamb that could have possibly happened. And I didn't orchestrate that or anything else. It just happened. And that's why I say you had a prosecutor's dream of a jury, and everything fell in line, and Cathy Lamb was a victim of it.

CALDWELL: The jury found her guilty of first-degree murder, and the judge sentenced her to life without parole. Her boyfriend, Nielson, disappeared and was never charged. But about five years later, Mike Sullivan had a change of heart - literally. Sullivan suffered a major heart attack. Cathy Lamb, who loves to write letters, sent him a sympathy card. It was around then Sullivan started rethinking his aggressiveness at Lamb's trial.

SULLIVAN: Life would have been plenty, and she'd have gotten out in 10 or 11, 12 years. And that would have been an adequate or more than adequate punishment for the facts of the case. And it wouldn't have mattered if it was Cathy Lamb or, like I say, whoever. It don't matter. If it was a man, it wouldn't have mattered. It's just the facts of the case did not warrant that.

CALDWELL: Sullivan started writing letters on her behalf, and even helped Lamb get Oklahoma's first ever commutation hearing for someone with a life-without-parole sentence. The parole board agreed she should have a shot at getting out. But in 2000, the governor at the time, Frank Keating, rejected the idea. The Lovell family has also adamantly protested Lamb's release, and she understands why.

LAMB: I don't know how I would feel if someone killed one of my children, no matter whether they were in the wrong or not.

CALDWELL: Cathy Lamb has been in prison for more than 30 years now. She's 72 years old and in a wheelchair. Her medical care costs Oklahoma thousands of dollars each year. So why can't she get out of prison?

LESLIE BRIGGS: If you take a look at a lot of these cases from the '90s, you're seeing over sentencing as just a general theme.

CALDWELL: That's Leslie Briggs. She's the legal director at the nonprofit Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. She says Lamb's situation is like many of the incarcerated domestic violence survivors she tries to help.

BRIGGS: We see a lot of similar kinds of situations for our survivors that Cathy was facing, I mean, really a threat to her person, a threat to her body. And she reacted in defense of herself and found herself behind bars.

CALDWELL: And former District Attorney Mike Sullivan tends to agree it was self-defense.

SULLIVAN: She was a small woman, and he was a big guy. If I had been on the other side, the jury would have heard a whole lot about that, I'm telling you.

CALDWELL: The chances of Cathy Lamb getting out of prison are slim at best. A string of people have tried to help her over the years. She says she's grateful.

LAMB: God has just put so many wonderful people in my life while I've been in prison. I have some wonderful, wonderful Christian sisters and mentors that have stood by me for years.

CALDWELL: Oklahoma has released people from prison after reforming drug and property crime sentencing. If the state wants to go further, many people say Lamb's case would be a good place to start. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Caldwell in Tulsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Cantwell