By Bob Allen
An Oklahoma district court judge sparked national attention after sentencing a teenager to attend church for 10 years as a condition for avoiding prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter.
Muskogee Judge Mike Norman gave 17-year-old Tyler Alred a maximum deferred sentence of 10 years for first-degree manslaughter stemming from a single-vehicle crash last December that took the life of Alred’s passenger and friend, 16-year-old John Luke Dum.
Alred reportedly told police he had been drinking before the accident. Two breathalyzer tests showed a blood-alcohol content of 0.06 and 0.07, below the legal limit for drunkenness, but because he was underage Oklahoma law allowed for him to be considered under the influence of alcohol.
Norman decided to grant probation following an emotional sentencing hearing Nov. 13, during which Alred tearfully apologized for his actions and at one point was embraced by Dum’s father. “At that moment, it sure became a reality to me that I would sentence this boy to church,” Norman told ABC News. “There’s nothing I can do to make this up to the family.”
Norman, a member of First Baptist Church in Muskogee, has made church attendance a condition of probation before, but never on someone as young as Alred or for such a serious crime.
“I told my preacher I thought I led more people to Jesus than he had but, then again, more of my people have amnesia,” Norman said. “They soon forget once they get out of jail.”
Randall Coyne, a professor of law at the University of Oklahoma, told the Tulsa World that the church-attendance condition probably wouldn’t survive a legal challenge because of issues related to the separation of church and state, but someone would have to bring such a challenge before it is overturned.
Defense attorney Donn Baker said he had no intention of challenging the judge’s decision. “My client goes to church every Sunday,” Baker said. “That isn’t going to be a problem for him. We certainly want the probation for him.”
Gary Allison, a professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law, said he isn’t a big fan of requiring church attendance as an alternative to prison.
“It speaks to forcing people to do religious activities they otherwise wouldn’t do of their own free will,” Allison told a local TV station. “I don’t know why a church would want somebody to come to it under the force of government compulsion.”
Allison also said going to church is too light a penalty for a crime that results in a death. “Somebody could get the idea to come before a judge and say, ‘If you don’t send me away, I’ll go to church all the time for however long you want me to,’” he said.
Norman, 67, said he’s received a couple of calls from outside the state telling him his ruling is a violation of the U.S. Constitution. “They may well be right, but that’s what I did and we made a record,” the judge said. “If someone wants to appeal my decision, they’re entitled to do that.”
In addition to attending church, other conditions of Alred’s probation are that he graduates from high school and welding school, submits to drug and alcohol testing, wears an ankle bracelet and speaks to groups about consequences of drinking and driving.
Dum died Dec. 3, 2011, after being ejected from a Chevrolet pickup driven by Alred at 4 a.m. on a county road a few miles east of Muskogee. The pickup veered off the east side of the road and struck a tree before going airborne. Dum was pinned under the vehicle and pronounced dead at the scene. Alred and a third teenager also in the vehicle were uninjured. Neither Alred nor Dum were wearing seatbelts.
Alred was taken to jail under suspicion of driving under the influence but was then released to a guardian. When a warrant for his arrest didn’t come until February, Dum’s parents wondered why it took two months for the district attorney’s office to determine whether charges would be filed. Alred was charged as a youthful offender, giving the courts wide latitude, ranging from rehabilitation with the Oklahoma Juvenile Authority to a full adult sentence in prison.
Alred pleaded guilty in August in a blind plea, meaning he would accept whatever sentence the judge decided and there was no plea bargain.
During the sentencing hearing, one of Dum’s two sisters said there was no sense in ruining two lives by sending Alred to prison. Alred’s lawyer told the judge that his client’s life was hanging in the balance.
“The issue you have, judge, is whether we’re going to destroy two lives,” Baker said. “One we can’t do anything about. The other, like they said, you’re the judge, so it’s up to you. I usually represent outlaws, and criminals. This is a kid that made a mistake. Judge, I think he’s worth saving.”
Taking into account Alred’s clean criminal and school records, Judge Norman agreed. After completing the rest of the requirements in his sentence, Alred will have the charge removed from his record.
“Only time will tell if we’ve saved Tyler Alred’s life,” the judge said.