Purse snatching leads to life sentence, highlights need for changes in sentencing policies

The Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown (KOKH).

Oklahoma’s ‘tough-on-crime’ policies have contributed to the current overcrowding conditions the state is facing in its aging prison system. Advocates for reforming the policies say the state needs to do more to change the way the state locks away criminals to ensure public safety is the priority and that only the most dangerous people remain behind bars.

One case that draws attention to the issues surrounding lengthy sentences is that of Rodney Fisher.

Fisher is serving life in prison; the sentence was allowed because of Fisher’s conviction for purse snatching.

To understand how Fisher ended up in prison you have to go back thirty years to a night in Tulsa.

“They say if you drive me I’ll give you four or $500,” Fisher recalled, “And I’m thinking about that could help or that could be the rent money.”

It was not just a ride though; the men he was driving around were planning a crime.

“When they told me what they wanted to do I said ‘No I'm not with that,’” Fisher told FOX 25. “So Brown pulled out a black revolver and pointed it at me and made me get out of the car so I get out of the car and I start walking.”

Fisher was walking when a police officer, responding to a call of shots fired, stopped him and placed him under arrest. Fisher was taken to the scene of a robbery, but a witness told police after seeing Fisher he was not the person responsible.

Fisher still ended up in jail that night.

Make no mistake though, 30 years ago, Fisher was not an upstanding citizen he had previous run-ins with the law and two previous felony cases.

“I was at the bottom,” Fisher said, “One of the lowest people on the planet, a thief you know what I’m saying? And I look back at myself and I’m like man I can't believe you was like that.”

Fisher was ultimately convicted of hitting an elderly woman while stealing and her purse. It was his third felony.

A few years into his sentence, he escaped from prison.

Because Fisher had three previous felonies the escape, which by itself only carries a sentence of two to seven years, was enhanced to life.

However, Fisher may not have belonged in prison at the time of his escape. New evidence has emerged suggesting he was wrongfully convicted for the “third strike” that led to his life sentence.

Fisher had been in prison for more than 20 years when someone else admitted to the robbery that fisher was convicted for.

Marvin Lindsey, another convicted felon who was still in prison at the time, signed a sworn affidavit that he was the one who committed the violent purse snatching.

However, without a lawyer, the confession sits in Fisher's case file as he attempts to get a court to look at the new evidence.

“I've filed a lot of appeals and when you make mistakes you didn't do this you didn't do that well you were timed and you had 30 days and you missed it by 4 days so you get a rough education of the law real quick,” Fisher said of his prison legal education. “I'm fighting for my freedom; I have to learn it.

Fisher's case, with or without the new evidence, points to one of the underlying problems with Oklahoma’s criminal justice priorities. At 53-years-old he's just a few years from being a senior citizen.

“The reality is for the individual like Mr. Fisher, as they get older their propensity to create additional crime or engage in additional criminal activity lowers significantly it just happens,” said Kris Steele, the director of The Education and Employment Ministry, or TEEM.

Steele is an advocate for changes in criminal justice policies in Oklahoma.

“I think at some point it behooves our state to implement some assessments to review if a person like Mr. Fisher is still deemed to be a menace to society or a threat to public safety.”

A large majority of Oklahomans voted to make changes to criminal justice policies last November, Steele and other advocates have spent a substantial amount of time this legislative session fighting to keep those voter-approved measures from being undone by lawmakers.

The state is likely a long way from passing any new laws that would allow for review of life sentences resulting in prisons full of senior citizens. However, Steele said there is progress being made.

Part of that change is driven by more acceptance of academic research into criminal justice policies.

“According to research that is coming out now seems to indicated that lengthy prison sentences tend to not only not reduce crime and/or increase public safety they often make it worse,” Steele told FOX 25.

For Rodney Fisher, the debate over prison policies isn't academic. It is personal and every day of debate is another day he spends behind bars.

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