This story was originally published by Mother Jones Magazine.
The jury deliberated for less than an hour. King’s muscles tensed as the foreman read the verdict—guilty on both counts—and recommended 30 years in prison for each. King dropped her head and started to cry.
“It was a travesty,” Boeheim says.
“I was flabbergasted,” says Araujo, King’s ex-husband’s aunt, who attended the trial.
“It was like my life was over. Like I’m not gonna see my kids grow up,” King recalls.
Only later did the jury learn that Purdy took a plea for 18 years in prison—12 years less than one of King’s sentences. “I was sick to my stomach,” juror Misty Reed, now 37 and with children of her own, recounts. “If I would have known that the boyfriend had gotten way less years, it would have definitely changed my mind” about the proposed sentence for King, she says. “And I guarantee it would have changed many others on the jury as well.” (Other jurors did not respond to my calls or declined to comment.)
With the trial over, King braced herself for the sentencing hearing. “All I ask is that you don’t make this the end of my life with my children,” she wrote to the court. The judge took some mercy and allowed her sentences to run concurrently. It was positive news, but little consolation: By the time she gets out of prison, she will be about 60 years old, and her children will be grown.
But for now they were still young and needed a permanent home. King had lost parental rights to her youngest daughter, Trinity, who was adopted by Purdy’s friend. What about the other three? The state of Oklahoma sent her daughter Lilah to live with Lilah’s father and King’s ex-husband, Lalehparvaran, despite knowing about his violent criminal record and history of substance abuse. Lilah’s older siblings, Persia and William, then 9 and 7, soon went to live with him too.
That state officials would condemn King as a bad mother for the way she had dealt with her ex-husband’s violence, and then send her young children to live with him while locking her away in prison, felt like the epitome of a double standard. “My heart sank,” King says. “I lost all faith in justice. I lost everything. What was I ever thinking in trusting a system that was not for me? I didn’t realize the depth of how much it wasn’t for me.”
King entered Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Oklahoma’s biggest prison for women, in May 2017. They handed her an orange jumpsuit that was too small, and a prisoner ID number and told her to memorize it. She would have one locker for her belongings: a bottle of shampoo, a tiny toothbrush with toothpaste, a bar of soap, two pairs of socks, two bras. Within a week, she watched someone get beaten with a shower rod.
In Oklahoma and around the country, the vast majority of incarcerated women are mothers: National data is scant, but studies have found that upward of 90 percent of them experienced physical or sexual violence before landing behind bars.
In 2018, King learned that she wasn’t the only person at Mabel Bassett serving time for failure to protect. Attorneys and advocates from the nonprofit Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, frustrated by lawmakers’ lack of action to reduce mass incarceration, had begun a commutation campaign to help incarcerated people petition the state for shorter sentences. Lambert, the ACLU lawyer, joined the effort and introduced King to several other women in the prison who had been convicted under the same law. All were women of color. “It made me see how messed up this state was,” King tells me. “There are so many of us in here that really should not be in here.”
In November 2019, one of them received good news. Tondalo Hall, now 38, had already served half of her 30-year sentence for enabling child abuse. Her ex-boyfriend Robert Braxton broke several bones in two of her children’s legs; he served only two years in jail before he was released on probation. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, agreed to shorten Hall’s sentence as part of a mass commutation of more than 500 incarcerated people around the state—the biggest commutation in US history.
When Hall learned that she would be freed, she could hardly believe it. It had been more than a decade since she’d spent much time with her kids; two of her children were younger than 2 when she was first incarcerated. When she walked out of the prison gates later that week, she started crying as she hugged her family, rocking back and forth with her son Robert, now a teenager. From inside the prison, inmates cheered Hall’s reunion loud enough for her to hear them. “I love all them ladies,” Hall said to TV cameras as she looked back toward them. “I’m coming back to help a lot of them.”
But since Hall’s release, Oklahoma’s pardon and parole board has rejected all the other mothers with similar cases who applied for a commutation. Other potential avenues for relief have also closed. In 2019, advocates pressured Oklahoma lawmakers to amend the failure-to-protect law to make it more lenient for survivors of domestic violence. Yet lawmakers balked after prosecutors claimed they needed the law’s life sentence provision to properly prosecute child abuse and to use as leverage to convince mothers to testify against their abusers. Around the same time, a committee charged by the legislature to reexamine the maximum punishments for a wide array of crimes recommended that people convicted of permitting child abuse be limited to 40 years. But that change has not yet been approved, and even if it were, it would not be retroactive, doing little for women like King.
In states like California, Illinois, and Tennessee, activists are trying to help incarcerated women in similar situations, but their cause hasn’t gotten much traction. “These are hard fights,” Lenz of Survived & Punished says of the moms pushing for mercy around the country. “There’s a fear for politicians of looking like they are excusing child abuse.”
Oklahoma continues to pursue failure-to-protect cases at a swift pace. In November, a Cleveland County jury convicted 30-year-old Rebecca Hogue of first-degree murder after her boyfriend beat her 2-year-old son to death while she was away at work. Her boyfriend later died by suicide in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, where investigators found the words “Rebecca is Innocent” carved into a tree next to his body. The judge did not allow a photograph of the carving to be shown to the jury, deeming it “hearsay” on behalf of the boyfriend. The jury recommended that Hogue go to prison for life with the possibility of parole.
Next: In Part 8, the finale of our series, we travel to Oklahoma to meet King’s children.