Support for Oklahoma’s abused women builds at Capitol

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 04/28/2023, 4:50 AM
Edited: 04/28/2023, 4:55 AM

(OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.) Oklahoma frequents the nation’s top spots for women killed by men and female incarceration. After House Bill 1639 cleared the Senate earlier this week, there could soon be another option for women who fight back against their abusers: justice. 

HB1639, known as the Oklahoma Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act, was authored and introduced by Rep. Toni Hasenbeck (R-Elgin).

On Monday, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 46-1, having unanimously passed the House last month.

“It is deeply concerning that, despite legitimate fear for their lives, thousands of abuse survivors are incarcerated for huge prison sentences even though they pose no threat to society," Hasenbeck said. "The Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act is designed to help protect these vulnerable women and men who had to make the incredibly brave decision to save their own lives, even when the only available option meant ending the life of their abuser. Oklahoma's survivors deserve justice."

HB1639 will now go back into conference for language finalization, before returning to the House for a final vote. 

As it stands, the bill would allow a survivor’s substantiated evidence of abuse within the prior year to be considered during sentencing or a guilty plea following an arrest relating to that abuse, and then allow the court the discretion of departing from the charge’s applicable sentence. 

The bill would also require survivors of domestic abuse arrested for crimes against their “intimate partner” to be given a trauma-informed psychological or psychiatric evaluation within 72 hours of their arrest, and mandates more thorough presentence investigations relating to prior abusive relationships, prior sexual assaults, prior experiences being human trafficked, amongst other relevant information.

Related story: When moms fight back: Stories from the Capitol

The bill was introduced with a retroactivity component but it was later taken out, meaning it would help women who fight back against their abusers in the future but none currently imprisoned for doing so. 

It’s a number non-profit Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice estimates is in the hundreds. 

“Since the beginning of this campaign we have asked the legislature to pass HB 1639 with retroactivity so that all of our survivors in the state have a chance at justice,” Oklahoma Appleseed Founding Executive Director Colleen McCarty said. “We renew that call today as the bill heads to conference, this law change is the the only chance many survivors have to right-size their sentences.”

These imprisoned women include domestic violence survivor April Wilkens, currently serving a life sentence for killing her rapist and abuser Terry Carlton. 

Oklahoma Appleseed filed an application for post-conviction relief for Wilkens in September of last year. 

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler responded that the case was fit for dismissal despite new Battered Women Syndrome research and physical evidence showing Wilkens was beaten and sexually harmed by her ex-fiancé.  

His response included the reasoning that “the jury heard so much testimony and evidence of how Petitioner was treated by Carlton and still found her guilty of Murder in the First Degree”. 

The Tulsa DA’s office also sent in a letter protesting Wilkens’ possibility of parole last year. 

Related story: Two decades later, a woman sentenced to life for killing her abuser still fights for freedom

Earlier this month, an all-male panel of judges at the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals denied Wilkens’ appeal and disregarded the withholding of evidence in her case because Wilkens did not discover it earlier and had not included it in a prior application.

“We are researching and planning April’s next step in the courts to cure this fundamental violation of her rights,” McCarty said. 

Wilkens’ appeal is not the only high profile case the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals denied this month. The court also recently rejected Attorney General Gentner Drummond’s motion to vacate Richard Glossip’s murder conviction based on evidence he failed to receive a fair trial in 2004. 

Hasenbeck said she plans to develop future legislation to expand the Act retroactively so Oklahomans like Wilkens can have a chance at freedom.

We reached out to the Tulsa DA’s Office for comment on Wilkens’ appeal as well as their stance on retroactivity being put back into HB1639 but have not heard back. 


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