Editorial by Editor in Chief Nehemiah Frank
Managing Editor | Liz Frank
Richard Zobon Baxter, 34, is a native Tulsan who has a story that reads like a school-to-prison-pipeline narrative straight out of Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow;” however, its twist warrants a visit to “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
Baxter overcame insurmountable odds when he walked away from a 121-year prison sentence.
Richard is the son of two hard-working immigrant parents, Emanuel and Judee Kroteh Baxter, who are both from Liberia which is on the coast of West Africa. They traveled to the United States in the 1970s to follow “The American Dream.”
Baxter initially attended Memorial High School but was kicked out after receiving too many tardy and absent slips. When he was in school, he was known as the class clown.
He relocated to Edison High School, but continued mischief landed him in the Tulsa Juvenile Detention Center for theft. Because of his absences at Edison, the teachers refused to let him advance to the next grade. But he was determined to graduate on time, so he transferred to Thunderbird Youth Academy, a military school, in Pryor, Oklahoma.
Upon graduating from the Academy, Baxter had one plan: Enlist in the military to use the G.I. Bill money to pay for college, get a business management and accounting degree and then open a Hip Hop / African inspired clothing line after graduating from college. Unfortunately, his plans were cut short because of an urge that has haunted him since his teens.
Two CDs, worth a total of $22, lost Baxter his military career and squashed the likelihood of his graduating from college to open his own business.
After being discharged, Baxter became severely depressed. Because of felonies, he acquired in his teens and early 20s he had a difficult time finding employment, and he returned to the life of a street hustler. He pushed drugs for extra cash to pay the rent, to purchase a vehicle, and to support his newborn baby.
In 2002 Baxter took a gun from a security guard. He spent six months in David L. Moss Correctional Facility. He prayed to God to let him off and promised never to steal again. And dispite his family’s prayers, he was found guilty.
He wasn’t a bad person; he was merely trying to survive a system that doesn’t allow second chances to the once incarcerated.
One day Baxter was pulled over by the Broken Arrow Police Department for driving with an expired tag. The cops ran his I.D and discovered that Baxter was driving on a suspended license and that his vehicle was uninsured, but that wasn’t even the worst part. Once he was in handcuffs, the officers illegally searched the vehicle and discovered a backpack full of drugs.
“Your daughter is going to have grandkids by the time you get out,” said one of the officers.
Baxter was sent to the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center and housed with inmates with similar offenses. On the day of the trial, Baxter knew his requests to God were just about tapped out. Knowing this, he prayed what he describes as an honest prayer:
“God, if I have to spend the rest of my life in prison I just ask that you be here with me. I give you my walk and talk from here on out.”
The jury sentenced Baxter to a 121-year and 7-days at the Lawton Correctional Facility, in Lawton, Oklahoma.
He was in shock and thought his life was over.
His father and uncle were in the Tulsa County Courthouse on the day his sentence was read. After the trial, his father, Emmanuel, thought his son only received 20 years, but would later discover via phone from his son that the sentence was 121 yrs.
“Don’t tell mom, don’t tell mom!” Baxter pleaded with his father.
When an inmate receives a life sentence, they immediately place them on a 48-hour suicide watch. On suicide watch, prisoners are put in an empty room, stripped nude, and given a napkin-textured blanket and a large plastic boat used as a bed. The temperature is purposely kept at a low temperature which helps the inmate’s mind focused on the cold and not their sentence. Individuals on suicide watch aren’t even allowed the comfort of their religious materials for fear they may try to rip the pages out of the books to suffocate themselves with.
Baxter didn’t attempt suicide but was in a mental fog for two weeks after until one day he became acutely aware of his surroundings.
His brother encouraged Richard, “Get yourself some shoes, get yourself a television, and get comfortable.”
But Baxter never accepted the lifelong sentence. Instead of playing cards or spending his hours watching TV, he chose to fight using his mind and studied similar court cases at the prison’s law library.
He found several similar court cases where inmates were able to escape life prison sentences, and he immediately sent the information to his lawyers.
Baxter’s determination and tenacity was evident. Submitting his own motions, which cited New York v. Belton, Kelly v. State, and Arizona v. Grant Supreme Court Case, to his attorney, Curtis Allen, led to his eventual freedom.
Baxter won appeal in 2010 and decided that the justice system is drastically flawed and that he could not sit on the sidelines waiting on someone else to change which he could empower himself to change. Upon his release from prison Baxter enrolled in Tulsa Community College for Paralegal Studies. Baxter now works as a Paralegal at Tate Law Firm and an intern at the Tulsa Public Defenders Office. Baxter is currently continuing his education to become a full-fledged lawyer. Baxter says
“I’m living proof the American justice system is tarnished but I plan on polishing it up.”
Richard Baxter is now the President of Racism Stinks, an organization that focuses on eradicating racial biases in his hometown of Tulsa, especially within The Tulsa Police Department.
In 1921, Tulsa suffered the worst racial massacre in American history at the hands of its white community. His organization seeks to mend the wounds of a massacre which killed upwards of 400 African-Americans and left 10,000 members of the African-American community homeless.
Every year during Memorial Day weekend, his organization holds the Race Agaisnt End Racism in downtown Tulsa. The race runs the route the massacring mob took back in 1921.