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'It was unfair:' The push for retroactive criminal justice for domestic violence victims who killed their abusers

Advocates with the Oklahoma Survivor Justice Coalition hold photos of currently incarcerated survivors outside the State Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass the Oklahoma Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act with retroactivity.
Hannah France
Advocates with the Oklahoma Survivor Justice Coalition hold photos of currently incarcerated survivors outside the State Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass the Oklahoma Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act with retroactivity.

Amanda Ross’s childhood memories of her aunt start out as happy ones.

“I remember she was always really cool, always laughing. And her son, Hunter, is about my same age. So we were always really close,” Ross said.

After her aunt went to prison, Ross said her parents tried to shield her from the truth.

“I was 7 when it happened, and my parents did shelter me from it. But I did know she had killed someone, and it was unfair. It’s how my family always talked about it,” Ross said.

When Ross got older, she learned her aunt, April Wilkens, was serving a life sentence for killing her ex-fiancé, Terry Carlton, in 1999. Wilkens said Carlton stalked and abused her over a period of two years, and she eventually shot Carlton in self-defense after he raped her and threatened to kill her.

As an adult, Ross started helping Wilkens by scanning documents for her commutation application in 2015. Soon after, she started the Free April Wilkens blog to share her aunt’s story.

“It's almost like a part time job helping her at times. Everything's expensive, even just to drive down and see her,” Ross said.

Ross is not alone in her advocacy for people in Wilkens’ position. The Oklahoma Survivor Justice Coalition, started by the Oklahoma Appleseed Law Center, advocates for criminal justice reform for criminalized survivors of domestic violence.

Ross spoke at an event held by the coalition in May to ask lawmakers to pass House Bill 1639, also called the Oklahoma Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act, which introduced several criminal justice reforms including sentencing mitigation that could lead to less time behind bars for criminalized survivors.

During the legislative session, language allowing for the reforms to be applied retroactively was removed, leaving advocates frustrated. Colleen McCarty, the executive director of Oklahoma Appleseed, said retroactivity is a vital part of criminal justice reform.

“It's crucial, in fact, for the public's perception of the justice system to be one that is of faith that we're actually delivering justice. And when we recognize that we didn't, that we go back and we fix it,” McCarty said.

Another supporter of retroactivity is Renetta Boyd, whose daughter, Keabreauna Boyd, is serving a life sentence with all but the first 20 years suspended for killing Luis Williams in 2020. Keabreauna was pregnant with Williams’ child when she said she killed Williams in self-defense after he attacked her with a knife.

Boyd said Keabreauna’s older four children are being raised by family in Oklahoma, and the youngest, the baby she gave birth to in custody, is being raised by family out of state. She said fielding questions from Keabreauna’s oldest children, now in high school, about if their mother will be able to attend their graduation ceremony is difficult.

“I could never find the answers to those questions. But what I always assure my grandchildren is [that] all we have, ya’ll, is one day at a time.”  

While McCarty said they were able to garner enough support to get the bill to the State Senatepushback from the District Attorney’s Council kept the bill from progressing.

In a written statement, DAC Assistant Executive Director Eric Epplin said the council was concerned about the language of the bill being too broad and potential re-litigation hearings would be burdensome to families of the victims. The DAC declined to be interviewed.

Though the bill was not passed this legislative session, McCarty said she won’t compromise on helping people in prison get relief.

“We wouldn't have been able to move people's hearts and minds without their stories. And to just say, ‘thanks for sharing your very public trauma, now we'll fix it from here…’ It's just not appropriate. “

For Boyd, retroactivity could bring relief not just to her daughter, but to her whole family.

“I believe if they would let my daughter come home, our life would be better. I'm not going to say anything is perfect, but our life would go back livable,” Boyd said. 

For Ross, retroactivity could allow her to reconnect with her aunt. But she said the stakes are higher than securing a family reunion.

“I'm not helping April just because she's my aunt. I do want to stress that it’s just that I'm just familiar with her story. And once people do become familiar with her story, it's like they get so angry, too, about certain injustices that happened to her. And they want to do something as well,” Ross said.

The bill has the potential to come back next session, but until then, family members and advocates will continue to share these stories.

Hannah France started her work in public radio at KBIA while studying journalism at the University of Missouri. While there, she helped develop and produce a weekly community call-in show, for which she and her colleagues won a Gracie Award. Hannah takes interest in a wide variety of news topics, which serves her well as a reporter and producer for KGOU.