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The prosecutor who put her away says she should be free, but she's still in prison in Oklahoma

Mike Sullivan lives on the outskirts of Poteau, Oklahoma near the Arkansas border. He’s a widower, 85 years old, and still in pretty good health considering his medical history that includes a major heart attack. It’s what helped put an end to his eight-year stint as LeFlore County district attorney in the 1990’s.

“We never lost a murder case to a jury. We never lost a drug case to a jury,” Sullivan said.

That perfect record may have continued if not for his health.

As he was recuperating, one of the people Sullivan prosecuted sent him a sympathy card. It was a small but significant moment, one that would set off a string of history-making events in Oklahoma: a woman sentenced to life without parole would, for the first time, have a chance at freedom.

After reading the card, Sullivan started thinking about the sender, Cathy Lamb, and how he handled her case in court.

“I am not proud of it,” he said.

The thing he remembers most is how petite Lamb is: about five feet tall and weighing around 100 pounds. The man she murdered was almost twice her size.

Cathy Lamb, right of center, poses in this undated family photo. In 1991, Lamb was about 100 pounds and stood around five feet tall.
Lamb family
Cathy Lamb, right of center, poses in this undated family photo. In 1991, Lamb was about 100 pounds and stood around five feet tall.

It happened in 1991 outside of a bar that Lamb should never have visited.

“It was a hole in the wall. It was a horrible place,” she said from inside a conference room at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Oklahoma.

The Why Not? Club in Bokoshe had been open for just two days when Lamb’s boyfriend, Chris Neilson, persuaded her to go . The two met at work and had been dating for a year. Lamb, who grew up in poverty with an alcoholic father, first married at 14 to a man in his 20’s. Her sister, Nancy Lawson, said she was the adult in that relationship.

“You know, he just was bad. He was drunk one night, I don't know how old he was, and he laid down on the side of the highway, actually on the highway, ‘cause the pavement was warm, and a semi ran over his legs, and they amputated one of his legs,” Lawson said.

The relationship ended in divorce when Lamb’s son, who was born when she was 15, was about three years old. Lamb began a “downward slide.” Lawson said she then started dating her second husband, who left bruises.

“I mean, he physically abused her.”

After he died Lamb began dating Neilson, who, on April 27, 1991, said there would be free barbecue at the Why Not?. But he was wrong. The food was served the day before during the grand opening celebration.

The long-shuttered Why Not? Club is seen in Bokoshe, Oklahoma in 2023. The bar had only been open two days when Lamb shot Lovell in the parking lot.
Elizabeth Caldwell
The long-shuttered Why Not? Club is seen in Bokoshe, Oklahoma in 2023.

With no dinner, Lamb spent time talking to another woman she knew inside the bar. Though she hadn’t been to Bokoshe much, she was acquainted with a lot of people because she lived and worked in LeFlore County for almost four decades. As she was chatting, Neilson disappeared for twenty or thirty minutes. It occurred to her later that he was abusing drugs.

“When he came back, he was just totally different.”

Neilson, who’d been drinking since earlier in the day, got angry when Lamb asked if they could leave. She said he spoke to her so sharply, that another man objected and briefly argued with Neilson. It wasn’t the last argument he would have that night. Lamb, who was sober, finally convinced him to leave, but as they were walking out, a different man beckoned to Neilson.

“Somebody at the other end of the bar hollered at him. And so he went back, and all hell broke loose. I couldn’t even see what was going on, but I knew there was some kind of fighting going on, and I was getting out of there, so I took off toward the door.”

Lamb made it to the parking lot, and after a brief bar brawl, Neilson followed. By then, she had a pistol in her hand. Like many Oklahomans, she sometimes carried a gun, though she said she hadn’t meant to bring it with her that night. It was mostly for protection while she traveled for her job as a Lee Western Manufacturing sales representative. According to court documents, Lamb was a good employee, but she was about to quit because she was tired of traveling. She wanted to be closer to home for her three children. Lamb also had an associate’s degree in art, despite dropping out of school in the eighth grade. She wanted to begin a new career as an art teacher.

Cathy Lamb (center) is seen with her son and mother in this undated family photo.
Lamb family
Cathy Lamb (center) is seen with her son and mother in this undated family photo.

By now, Lamb had raised her gun in the air and fired twice. She was afraid the men inside might follow Neilson outside. They didn’t, but across the street, 23-year-old Darrell Lovell took notice.

Lovell, who’d spent the day fishing in nearby McCurtain, had stopped to buy beer at a convenience store. He was standing out front with some friends when Lamb and Neilson ran out of the bar. According to court testimony, it was not the drunk and now bleeding Neilson that provoked laughter from Lovell and his friends. They just happened to be joking around when the couple appeared. But Neilson took the laughter as mockery. He began to shout back at the group even as Lamb begged him to stop.

“And I kept telling him, ‘Come on and get in the truck or I'm gonna run off and leave you.’”

She helped Neilson get into the passenger side of the truck, but as she was moving to get in, Lovell, who was 5’10” and almost 200 pounds, crossed the street.

“I turned back around and took maybe a step, and the guy was there, and he was trying to go around me, and I said, ‘Man, let us leave.’ I said, ‘We don’t want any more problems. Just let me get him out of here.’ And he said, ‘Shut up, bitch,’ and shoved me in the face.”

That’s when Lamb said she unintentionally shot Lovell in the head. He crumpled to the ground and died shortly after. Several of the men who were with him rushed toward Lamb. Witnesses said she quickly fled the scene.

Lamb intended to immediately go to the police, but she said Neilson stopped her.

“When we got into town, I started to go to the police station. And he grabbed me by the hair. ‘No, you take me to your house right now.’”

Poteau is the seat of LeFlore County, where Mike Sullivan was the district attorney for most of the 1990's.
Elizabeth Caldwell
Poteau is the seat of LeFlore County, where Mike Sullivan was the district attorney for most of the 1990's.

Lamb did take him to her house, where she also flagged down a passing police car and confessed. According to Lamb, the officer was shocked because they were looking for a different woman. No one suspected her because she was so well-known and didn’t have a criminal record. The sheriff’s deputy who took her to the jail was a friend from school.

“When we started to the courthouse in the next town, I said, ‘Can I smoke?’ And he said, ‘Do you have cigarettes?’ I said, ‘In my purse.’ And he just handed me my purse. He hadn't even looked in it or anything.”

And this is where Mike Sullivan enters the picture.

While Lamb was waiting in jail, he offered her a deal. If she pled guilty, she would spend 25 years in prison. But Lamb’s public defender, who Sullivan characterized as deeply incompetent, turned down the offer.

“He nonchalantly threw it off. I’ll put it that way. I don’t know that he actually laughed at us or not, but he nonchalantly cast the offer away,” Sullivan said.

So Sullivan prosecuted Lamb to the fullest extent of the law. He said he might have even tried “a little harder” because of her attorney’s attitude. And just when he was making his closing argument the infant son of the victim started to wail.

“Worst thing for Cathy Lamb that could have possibly happened, and I didn't orchestrate that or anything else. It just happened, and that's why I say you had a prosecutor's dream of a jury, and everything fell in line, and Cathy Lamb was the victim of it.”

The jury found her guilty of first-degree murder, and the judge sentenced her to life without parole. Neilson disappeared and was never charged in the case.

At the time of his heart attack around 1996 Sullivan began expressing reservations about Lamb’s case. In 2000, he helped her get Oklahoma’s first ever commutation hearing for someone with a life without parole sentence.

The prison started buzzing, Lamb said.

“Even the officers and the staff were excited about it. A lot of staff members would come by and say, ‘I’m praying for you, Ms. Cathy.’ That was nice to have support.”

The state parole board voted 3-2 in favor of commuting her sentence to life, making her eligible for parole. But then governor Frank Keating rejected the suggestion, likely because the Lovell family adamantly protested Lamb’s release.

She said she understands why they feel the way they do.

“I don’t know how I would feel if someone killed one of my children, no matter if they were in the wrong or not.”

A painting done by Cathy Lamb is seen in an art show for incarcerated women held in 2023.
Elizabeth Caldwell
A painting done by Cathy Lamb is seen in an art show for incarcerated women held in 2023.

Cathy Lamb has been in prison for more than thirty years now. She’s 72 years old and in a wheelchair because the state delayed treatment of a tumor near her spine. Her medical care costs the state thousands each year.

So why can’t she get out of prison?

“If you take a look at a lot of these cases from the 90’s, you’re seeing over sentencing as just a general theme,” said Leslie Briggs, the legal director of the nonprofit Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

Briggs, who advocates for women who kill abusive partners, said Lamb’s situation is familiar.

“We see a lot of similar kinds of situations for our survivors that Cathy was facing. I mean, really, a threat to her person, a threat to her body, and she reacted in defense of herself and found herself behind bars.”

Briggs said Oklahomans ought to be especially sympathetic to self-defense.

“In criminal law, ideally, the punishment needs to fit the crime, and the entire context of the crime matters. In a state like Oklahoma, a stand your ground state, a state that is heavily supportive of the second amendment right to bear arms, using a firearm in self-defense should be, you’d think it would be a no-brainer.”

Sullivan even tends to agree that Lamb’s crime was self-defense.

“She was a small woman, and he was a big guy. If I had been on the other side, the jury would’ve heard a whole lot about that, I’m telling you.”

The chances of Cathy Lamb getting out of prison are slim. A string of people have tried to help her over the years.

“God has just put so many wonderful people in my life. While I've been in prison. I have some wonderful, wonderful Christian sisters and mentors that have stood by me for years,” she said.

Oklahoma has started to release inmates from prison after reforming drug and property crime sentencing. In 2019, more than 400 prisoners walked to freedom in what’s been billed as the largest single-day commutation in the nation’s history. The move is expected to save the state almost $12 million a year.

If Oklahoma wants to go further, many - including the district attorney who prosecuted her - say Lamb’s case would be a good place to start.

Editor's note: The attached audio story with a transcript was published March 15. This article was published April 3.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.