Judges Rule Gov. Tina Kotek Is Illegally Keeping People Behind Bars

Kotek has quietly walked back at least five revocations of commutations, presumably because they would not survive legal scrutiny.

Gov. Tina Kotek has reviewed as many as 150 early releases from prison. (Nathaniel Perales)

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown commuted the sentences of nearly 1,000 people locked up in state prisons. Her successor, Gov. Tina Kotek, has reviewed as many as 150 of these early releases and reversed at least two dozen.

But Kotek’s effort to reel back in people Brown released has met the ire of judges who have twice ruled that the governor is keeping people behind bars under illegal circumstances.

One of those people is Truly Luvn Ray. Ray was released early from custody by Gov. Brown in mass commutations to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect medically vulnerable people in custody. Ray had served most of a stint in prison for identity theft.

Her early freedom didn’t last long. Fifteen months after she was set free, Ray was convicted on new mail theft charges and landed back in prison.

In November, as Ray served the last stretch of her sentence, Kotek tacked on four more months of prison time. Ray’s new release date: June, not February, to serve out the remainder of her identity theft sentence that Brown had commuted years earlier.

In letters obtained by WW, Ray argued that she had already completed her time for identity theft and that Kotek had imprisoned her illegally. “I’m pleading with courts to PLEASE assign me counsel as soon as humanly possible. I am sitting in prison,” Ray wrote in March.

Last week, a Washington County circuit judge agreed.

The case, which has not been previously reported, follows an Oregon Supreme Court ruling that Kotek illegally imprisoned another woman, Terri Lee Brown, after revoking her commutation almost a year too late, and after Brown had completed her sentence. The decision instantly complicated Kotek’s project of reviewing commutations, which the governor’s office has not detailed. Civil rights advocates lauded the court decision and expected more reincarcerated people to petition judges for their release.

Brandon Kammer, Ray’s attorney, quickly used the precedent of Brown’s case to argue for Ray’s release. Circuit Judge Brandon Thompson ordered Ray to be immediately released from custody on May 29.

In response, Kotek quietly walked back at least five revocations of commutations, presumably because they would not survive legal scrutiny. Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton told WW that his office received notice of four reversals from the governor’s office on May 31. His counterpart in Clackamas County, DA John Wentworth, was informed of one reversal. (Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt requested just one revocation from Kotek—that of Brandon Michael Dixon, who had been convicted of robbery in 2010 and was charged with new crimes.)

The court cases, and Kotek’s about-face, show the battle lines in a wider war over the governor’s treatment of commutations.

Kotek has allied herself with district attorneys, working together to review cases like Ray’s, in which people who received commutations committed new crimes, potentially violating the conditions of their early release. On the other side, civil rights advocates and defense lawyers are challenging Kotek’s moves in court.

Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, calls Kotek’s reversals “profoundly disturbing…callous and indifferent.” The Portland nonprofit, which seeks criminal justice reforms, brought Terri Lee Brown’s case to the state Supreme Court.

Singh says Kotek’s office is disorganized and revoking commutations with little regard for prison conditions or the well-being of people put back in custody. “They do not exhibit any understanding or sensitivity to the real-world impact they are having on individuals,” he adds.

DA Wentworth has appreciated Kotek’s involvement. In an interview with WW, he scoffed when recalling that Ray was considered medically vulnerable to COVID-19 and granted early release by Gov. Brown. “Too sick to be incarcerated,” he said of Ray, “but not too sick to commit crime.”

Ray could not be reached by press time. Kammer, her attorney, declined requests for comment.

Gov. Kotek is departing from her predecessor’s high-profile use of commutations, which became a lightning rod. The previous governor broadly used clemencies and commutations to reduce prison populations and give serious offenders a second chance during her second term in office.

In 2020 and 2021, Gov. Brown released 963 people incarcerated at state prisons to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Like Ray, recipients of these COVID-conditional commutations were typically released a few months before their original release date. (Separately, Brown also granted clemency to some people convicted of violent crimes, including murder, and cleared Oregon’s death row.)

Brown’s approach drew heat from district attorneys and Republicans, including 2022 gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan, who pegged Brown and Kotek—who stepped down as House speaker to run for governor—in TV ads as soft on crime. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also criticized Brown’s decision to release a convicted murderer, who has since become a lobbyist for the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

Last year, WW reported that one person whose sentence was commuted by Brown, Jesse Lee Calhoun, was a suspect in a spate of Portland-area murders that occurred after his original release date, but suggested he had been insufficiently monitored. (Last month, a grand jury indicted Calhoun for the murder of three women.) In response, Kotek asked district attorneys to notify her when someone who received a commutation apparently violated the terms of their release by committing another crime.

“I think Gov. Kotek inherited a mess from Gov. Brown,” DA Barton says. “I’ve been impressed that the governor’s office has followed through and revoked commutations.”

In Washington County, Barton compiled a list of about 50 such cases and sent a spreadsheet to Kotek’s office. In Clackamas County, Wentworth compiled a list of 43 names. Among them: Truly Ray, who was convicted of mail theft in 2022 under the name Jennifer Lynn Huerta. (Ray has used a number of aliases over the years.) The Marion County District Attorney’s Office recommended that Kotek revoke about 50 commutations.

It’s unclear how many commutations Kotek is reviewing or has revoked, and how she makes those decisions. Elisabeth Shepard, a spokeswoman for the governor, did not answer those questions in a statement emailed to WW.

Kotek “will continue to partner with district attorneys, community corrections, and local law enforcement to address any recommendations she receives from them regarding revoking commutations,” Shepard wrote.

Wentworth says Kotek revoked 20 commutations on his list—about half the cases he’d recommended.

On June 3, the OJRC sued Kotek’s office for records of all commutation reversals. The next day, the governor’s office produced 800 pages of records.

Lawyer Venetia Mayhew represented a slew of clients who received clemency or a commutation from Brown in 2022—work that made her well known in state prisons. She says Ray and Terri Lee Brown reached out to her for counsel this year. Mayhew expressed concern that Kotek’s process seems to give little notice to people who may have violated the conditions of their commutation—and no opportunity for a hearing.

Defense lawyer Jody Davis says she is representing an Eastern Oregon man whose commutation was revoked days before he was scheduled to complete a drug treatment program. She questioned Kotek’s motivations, given that Oregon prisons have high rates of drug use and scant options for addiction treatment.

“Why are we doing this?” Davis asks.

Brown and Ray both spent their illegal time in custody at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, which has been plagued by chronic sex abuse and poor conditions. (Its only gynecologist was fired last month, WW reported.) Kotek has formed an advisory board that is meeting behind closed doors to propose reforms.

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