A man who has served 21 years in prison for the rape and shooting death of a teenage girl in Cleveland County will have a chance to receive a reduced prison term.
Thomas Carroll Loveless was 16 years old when he killed Tiffany Rebecca Tull. Two years later, a Cleveland County jury convicted him of murder, rape and kidnapping charges and he was later sentenced to life in prison without parole.
However, decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals will allow Loveless and about 40 other murderers who received life without parole as juveniles to seek lighter prison sentences. The Oklahoma court rendered its decision in May 2018.
Loveless, now 39, was granted a resentencing hearing Wednesday by Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman. The hearing, set for April 13, will be held before a 12-member jury.
Prosecutors in 1996 presented evidence that Loveless and teenage co-conspirator Michael Allen Foldenauer convinced the girl to go for a ride with them before Loveless shot Tull in the chest with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Assistant District Attorney SuAnne Carlson confirmed Thursday prosecutors will again seek life in prison without parole for Loveless. The court decisions prevent life without parole sentences from being imposed against juveniles unless a list of factors are proven in court.
Tim Laughlin, chief attorney with the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System's non-capital trial division, said he had no comment on specific facts in the Loveless case. However, he said the options available to juries in these types of resentencing hearings are life without parole or life in prison.
A third alternative would be for a judge to impose a jury's life term recommendation and then order the defendant to serve a set number of years in prison while spending the rest of their life on probation, Laughlin said.
Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn said the federal and state court decisions will create emotional problems for victims' families who have to endure resentencing hearings of those who killed their loved ones.
"The families will be revictimized again and it will be a reopening of old wounds," he said.
However, Mashburn said his prosecutors will continue seeking life without parole for juvenile offenders in the "appropriate cases."
"Just because you're 17 years and 364 days old doesn't mean you shouldn't spend the rest of your life in prison for committing a heinous crime," he said.
According to the decision handed down by the Oklahoma appeals court, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant, when committing the crime as a juvenile, was "irreparably corrupt" and "permanently incorrigible."
Generally, this will include evidence about the defendant's sophistication and maturity, the capability of distinguishing right from wrong, family and home environments, emotional attitude, pattern of living, previous contacts with law enforcement and the likelihood of the defendant's rehabilitation during adulthood, the court's opinion states.
Those factors were not part in place when the 1996 trial occurred, Carlson said. Cleveland County prosecutors at the time sought the death penalty against Loveless, but jurors rejected that punishment.
Loveless' family wants the original punishment to remain in effect, Carlson said.
"I talked to the victim's father and he continues to support the sentence of life without parole," she said.
At the same time, a jury must have the chance to consider mitigating evidence that would favor the juvenile defendant. Typically, this will include evidence about the defendant's age, maturity level, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences, capacity to assist their defense attorneys and if the circumstances suggest the possibility of rehabilitation, according to the appeals court's majority decision.
Loveless shot Tull in the chest after raping her, according to a 1996 affidavit prepared by Oklahoma City homicide detective Robert Easley. Loveless and co-defendant Foldenaur took Tull to the area of SW 121st and Rockwell Avenue, where the sexual assault and killing occurred, the affidavit states. Loveless was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the rape conviction.
Loveless also told police in 1996 that he and Foldenauer kidnapped two other girls who later escaped, according to the affidavit.
Foldenauer was sentenced to life in prison on the murder charge after testifying against Loveless, Carlson said. Both men were sentenced to eight years on each of the two kidnapping convictions that involved the other two teen girls. Loveless and Foldenauer remain in custody with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections at the North Fork Correctional Center in Sayre.
State Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said she wants the Oklahoma Legislature to approve a measure that would bring state law in line with the court decisions. The U.S. Supreme Court issued its most recent ruling about juveniles and life without parole in 2016. The decision focused on a case in Louisiana.
About 40 Oklahoma cases involving juveniles who received punishments of life without parole are pending.
Virgin filed a bill during the last legislative session that passed the House, was approved by the Senate judiciary committee, but was stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Virgin said she and the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council had reached an agreement on the bill's language.
The Norman legislator said she expects House Bill 1449 will be renewed when the next legislative term begins in February. Generally, the proposal follows the courts' decisions but also adds a provision that would allow life without parole to be reduced if the convicted murderer has served at least 30 years in prison.
A judge would also be required to determine that the inmate is not a danger to the community and that the "interests of justice warrant a sentence reduction," the proposed measure states.