The Tulsa World by Omer Gillham - May 13, 2011
A preliminary deal has been reached that will set aside the life sentence of a Tulsa woman who was convicted of drug trafficking in 2005, court officials said Thursday. Sheila Devereux, 47, appeared before Tulsa County District Judge Tom Thornbrugh on Thursday. She filed a request for post-conviction relief April 18 seeking to reduce or vacate her sentence, records show. After refusing a plea deal of seven years, Devereux was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in 2005. She qualified for Oklahoma's "three-strikes" law for repeat offenders because of two prior drug-possession convictions - in 1999 and 2001. Devereux's case involved several Tulsa police officers who have since been indicted or named in a federal probe of law enforcement corruption in Tulsa.
Her pleading states that new evidence in her case includes an alleged pattern of misconduct by three officers that could render them impeachable as witnesses if an evidentiary hearing were granted. Her case is one of dozens reviewed by the District Attorney's Office. However, the officers' involvement was not the reason prosecutors cited in agreeing to set aside her conviction. Prosecutors responded to Devereux's request for a reduced sentence by recommending that she be allowed to plead guilty to a lesser drug charge due to ineffective counsel at her trial, according to records filed Wednesday in Tulsa County District Court. Devereux is expected to return to court June 16 to learn the details of her plea offer, said her attorney, Stanley Monroe. As part of setting aside her life sentence, court officials are prepared to offer Devereux a 15-year sentence that would be divided between prison and probation, Monroe said. She has been in prison since November 2005. "Everyone here, from the judge to the district attorney, is committed to Sheila being successful in her rehabilitation and life once she is released," he said. "The court wants to make sure she has a program to go to that addresses her (drug) recovery, employment and reintegration needs." Numerous family members attended her hearing Thursday. They included her parents, Jerry and Della Sargent; and three children, Tyler Devereux, 20, Kiersten Leslie, 26, who is pregnant with Devereux's first grandchild, and Niklas Devereux, 14. Sheila Devereux's sister, Sheryl Fosberg, and aunt and uncle, June and Arvin Hout, also attended the hearing. "We were hopeful she could come home today, but we understand that the details need to be worked out," Jerry Sargent said. Sitting in Thornbrugh's courtroom in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit, Devereux beamed and mouthed "I love you" to her family. Family members quietly wept and held hands while learning of Devereux's chance of being set free. The family credited the Tulsa World with bringing attention to her case. Tyler Devereux, a junior majoring in electrical engineering at the University of Tulsa, has been the driving force behind the movement to obtain freedom for his mother. "Our family is disappointed, but we continue to trust in God that everything happens for a reason and that everything will fall into place," he said. "We are happy for this opportunity that has been brought upon us, and we will continue to wait for my mom's release." On Sept. 30, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals upheld Devereux's life sentence by denying her request to modify her sentence, records show. While the Tulsa County District Attorney's Office concurred in the decision to throw out Devereux's life sentence, the office is not conceding that she is innocent or that police officers acted improperly in her case, a filing by Assistant District Attorney Doug Drummond states. "A review of trial transcripts suggests errors were made by the trial counsel that put the defendant in an even more precarious position. Then she later finds out that appellate counsel failed to file an appeal on her behalf. It was nearly four years after the jury verdict before any appeal was filed and no ineffective assistance of counsel (issue) was raised," Drummond stated in the filing. In filing her request for post-conviction relief, Devereux raised the issue that three officers involved in her case have been named in the police corruption probe. Thus far, 11 Tulsa police officers have been indicted or named as unindicted co-conspirators or cooperating witnesses in a grand jury probe.
Meanwhile, 31 people have been freed from prison, had felony charges dismissed or been granted new trials due to the investigation. Two of the defendants in the police corruption case, Officer Nick DeBruin and retired Officer Harold R. Wells, were involved in Devereux's case. DeBruin and Wells are charged with theft of U.S. funds, possession of drugs and civil rights violations and are accused of planting small amounts of methamphetamine and crack cocaine on people. They are not accused in the indictments of wrongdoing in the Devereux case. Recent developments reveal that a third Tulsa police officer involved in Devereux's case, Frank Khalil, has been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the police corruption case. In an October interview with the World, Devereux admitted being a drug user but denied being a drug trafficker. When she was arrested in the home of her co-defendant, Earnest Allen Butler, Devereux said she had been staying at the residence about two months. She was not the person listed on a search warrant that was served there, records show. Butler, 71, was listed on the search warrant. After Devereux's life sentence was upheld, Tyler Devereux contacted the World out of desperation, he said. Until contacting the World, the family was unaware that his mother's case involved two indicted police officers and an unindicted co-conspirator. "Without a doubt the World's stories raised issues and changed things for my mother's case," Tyler Devereux said. "It would be a much different picture without the World stories." Butler was paroled from prison in October 2009. He pleaded guilty March 15, 2005, to drug trafficking and received a 13-year prison term, records show. He has a previous felony drug conviction. Devereux and Butler were found to have possessed 6.28 grams of cocaine base. In state court, 5 grams or more of cocaine base (crack) qualifies a person for a drug-trafficking charge, court officials have said. While the family was aware of Devereux's previous drug problems, Tyler Devereux said the family was unprepared for the life sentence she received. "I remember one time after the sentencing, for some reason it really hit me," he said. "I was with my girlfriend watching a movie with their family. All of a sudden, I just started crying my eyes out. I laid there for probably two hours and just cried because reality had set in that my mom was going to die in prison." World Enterprise Editor Ziva Branstetter contributed to this story.