Ryan Haynie | August 7, 2020
COVID death in Oklahoma County jail highlights need for bail reform
On July 1, 2020, Clarence Merrell came before Judge Lisa Hammond in Oklahoma County for his initial appearance in a drug conspiracy case. He entered his plea of “not guilty,” a public defender was tentatively appointed to represent him, and bail was set at $100,000. His arraignment effectively became his death sentence as he died of COVID-19 in the Oklahoma County jail on August 4.
Just like everyone else who passes through the criminal justice system, Merrell was entitled to the presumption of innocence. According to a story in The Oklahoman, Merrell was 64 years old. He was ultimately charged in six counts of overlapping offenses, but had not been convicted of any of them. He was like the other 80 percent of jail residents who have not been convicted of the crime(s) charged.
The purpose of bail is to ensure the accused appears for future court dates. If bail is set excessively high, which it frequently is, it creates disparities between those who can afford bail and those who can’t. When the accused can’t afford bail, he is forced to await trial in the county jail. Even under normal circumstances, this is problematic. Pretrial detention makes it more difficult to put on a defense. It gives prosecutors enormous leverage to coerce a plea bargain. And in the era of COVID-19, it can literally be a death sentence.
The Oklahoma County jail has reported 44 cases of COVID-19, 33 of which were active as of Monday. With the Oklahoma County jail already overcrowded, it is irresponsible to detain Oklahomans pretrial unless they pose a specific threat to the public or are a significant flight risk. But it is even more problematic to detain those in vulnerable populations, like Merrell, who are especially susceptible to health complications from COVID-19. The United States Supreme Court has stated that “[i]n our society liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.” In Oklahoma, as in many other states, the exceptions seem to have swallowed the rule. More reforms are necessary in our bail system, but a good start would be showing some compassion for the elderly and immunocompromised who are not charged with violent offenses. No matter how you feel about drug crimes or Merrell personally, we should all agree that his offense didn’t justify the death penalty.
Criminal Justice Reform Fellow
Ryan Haynie serves as the Criminal Justice Reform Fellow for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Prior to joining OCPA, he practiced law in Oklahoma City. His work included representing the criminally accused in state and federal courts. Ryan is active in the Federalist Society, serving as the Programming Director for the Oklahoma City Lawyer’s Chapter. He holds a B.B.A. from the University of Oklahoma and a J.D. from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. He and his wife, Jaclyn, live in Oklahoma City with their three children.