Larry Yarbrough is one of Oklahoma’s incarcerated people aged 50 and older who are currently serving life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses. After 22 years of incarceration, he uses a wheelchair and suffers from diabetes and congestive heart failure. He has never had a citation for misconduct; instead he’s received commendations for volunteering his time, training dogs to assist people with disabilities. On the outside, Norma, his wife of 41 years, continues to wait for his release, along with their five children and thirteen grandchildren.
Before his incarceration, Larry and his wife ran a BBQ restaurant, Larry being the only black business owner in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. In 1994, a dozen police officers and two drug-sniffing dogs searched his house. After searching all day and finding nothing, police said they discovered an ounce of cocaine in the front room, shortly after the county sheriff arrived.
Larry has always maintained his innocence, and several witnesses testified to seeing Sheriff Danny Graham carry a brown paper sack into the house, just before the ounce of cocaine turned up. Dennis Will, a juror at the trial, describes a climate of racism in the county and the courtroom, with extreme pressure to convict despite the questionable evidence. Judge Susie Pritchett sentenced Larry to life without parole — the same judge who would later sentence a woman to 20 years for possession of $30 worth of marijuana.
For years, advocates have pushed for Larry’s release , telling his story and gaining support. Filmmaker Mark Faulk featured Larry in his documentary Voices in a Jailhouse. At last, on March 18, 2016, Governor Mary Fallin commuted Larry’s sentence, which opened the possibility of parole. In doing so, the governor joined the growing momentum throughout the U.S. to reform sentencing of nonviolent offenders, calling the drug laws at the time of Larry’s trial overly harsh. Advocates and family celebrated, believing Larry would soon leave prison behind. His daughter Lanita made plans to open a new BBQ restaurant for her father to run.
Two months later, the state’s Pardon and Parole Board denied Larry parole. He remains locked up, with the state and taxpayers responsible for his growing medical expenses, and his family still waiting. His lawyer is not hopeful that the Board will find any differently in the future.