Charles Joe Edward Whiters was arrested when he was 14 years old and served 26 and half years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Whiters was released in April 2019 and now is a prison reform advocate who works with Oklahoma City youth to help them avoid going down a similar path.

In an Oklahoma Watch feature “A Mile In Another’s Shoes,” an initiative to give voice to the voiceless or call attention to the plight of those affected by public policy, Whiters, 41, talks about the events leading up to his arrest and how his life has changed.

I’m a mama’s boy. I don’t think there’s another person on this earth that loves their mother as much as me. I was born in a jail — it’s crazy how I ended up spending my whole life in jail — but my mother came home.

The first time I saw my mother, I had just turned 5 and it was Christmas Eve, the night before Christmas, she walked through the door. That was probably one of the best memories I have in my life.

One event I think turned me stone-cold, it was a summer night. I was 6 years old. She told me and my brother, “Come on, let’s go to the store and get some snacks.” So me, her and my older brother walked to the store and as soon as we walk in, Mama grabbed her some chips. She opened them up and she’s walking around eating while she’s telling us “Get what y’all want.”

We’re walking up to the counter, open bag of chips and everything. She set everything on the counter. As soon as it hit the counter, the door opened and we turned and looked and it was the police. 

This man walked up to my mother, grabbed her by her arm, threw her on her face and stuck his knee in the back of her neck. 

The whole time, she was yelling at my big brother, “Get my baby out of here.” And I’m telling him, “Help me get him off of Mama — we can get him, we can take him.” My brother was bigger than me, so he got the best of me and pulled me out. We took off and ran home to get my grandma.

By the time we make it back to the store, they had already taken her to jail. They released her the next day. Ever since that day, I have had issues with the police.

Now, I’m not like that towards police at all. I don’t have hate for no one. This is cops and robbers. Because I had so much hatred for cops, I wanted to be the robber. I picked up an identity that I had no knowledge of just because I did not want to be a cop because I saw what cops did. And I thought all cops did that. 

It took 26 years of my life in prison and the majority of my youth in juvenile detention centers for me to understand that. 

I went to prison when I was 14 because my best friend killed someone. It goes back to 1994. I was walking down the street, playing basketball and a car pulled up and it was my cousin. I threw the ball in my front yard, got in the car, and we’re riding around, drinking, smoking weed. While (my cousin) went in the store, the driver gave me two Xanax pills. I never took Xanax in my life. And he got back in the car. We leave there, riding around and drinking and smoking and drinking and smoking till I passed out.

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While I was in the back seat passed out, they mastered the plan to rob someone and in the commission of this robbery, they shot a guy in his back. He died from a blood problem a week later. So they charged all of us with felony murder.

(Law enforcement) told me a story they wanted me to tell. (They said) “And if you don’t tell these stories, we’re going to give you life without parole.” Well, they told me 99 years. I was like, “Listen, I’m not going to say that because that’s a lie. I don’t know nothing. Now what I can tell you is I was passed out and we were driving around drinking and smoking. It’s all I know, honest to God.”

That wasn’t good enough. So they made me sit in the county jail for close to four years — 1,172 days — and they made me go to jury trial with my co-defendant, who shot the guy. He thought if we went to jury trial, he could be like “Hey, listen, I’m guilty. He’s innocent” and then they will let me go home and send him to prison. The law in Oklahoma is that you can’t find one innocent, one guilty. You find them both innocent or both guilty. And because he was guilty, they weren’t gonna let me go free because I was innocent. So they told me basically like, well, because you’re innocent you’ll get your appeal and you’ll be out in three years. 

Charles Joe Edward Whiters, 41, is a former inmate who now advocates for better treatment of prisoners and criminal justice reform through the Oklahoma Coalition Against People Abuse. (Rebecca Najera/Oklahoma Watch)

Well, I couldn’t read or write. When I get my appeal, I take it to the law library and I tell them “I don’t know nothing about law, but can y’all help me?” They brought me back my papers nine days after my time (to appeal) had ran out. So now I’m time-barred. I can never appeal my case. I can’t get back. So I’m stuck with likely 20 years.

It was a difficult journey. Oklahoma County Jail, at the time, was the third-worst county jail in the nation. Seventeen-year-old kid sitting on death row — I did 30 days on death row. I leave there and they send me to Oklahoma State Reformatory, which is the second-worst prison in Oklahoma.

At the time, I did eight years. Because the facility felt like I had too much of an influence over the population, they shipped me and I ended up in Holdenville, where my life started turning for the good.

It was this older guy (named Randall Taylor), he’s deceased now, but one day he walked up to me and said “Can I pray for you?” I was in my devastation where I almost gave up on everything, I was at my worst. I allowed it. He suckered me into becoming a prayer warrior and he managed to get me in school…a program called Genesis One, a faith-based program.

I was illiterate. I had to start out from the lowest and work my way to the top. The doors really opened from there and I took 71 programs. I got my high school diploma. I became a tutor tutoring math. I went to college, got my barber license, all kinds of stuff.

Then I made parole with the help of (former Sen.) Connie Johnson and several other people. (Gov.) Brad Henry granted me my parole. He leaves office and then Gov. Fallin came in. She denied me parole because she had a thing with violent offenders though for 15 years I showed no signs of violence at all. Because the crime was violent, she still saw me as violent.

So I ended up doing more years until they started a petition — the “Free Charles Whiters” petition started by Michael Washington (a paralegal) and my co-defendant, Donnie Boyd. Donnie Boyd, from the beginning of us getting arrested, fought for my innocence. He did 23 and a half years, guilty. He got out before because he stepped up from the beginning of his crime and said that he did it.

That petition got to Gov. Stitt. Gov. Stitt woke up on a Monday morning and called the prison and told the warden she had until Wednesday at 10 o’clock to get me out of here or else she’d have to look for a new job. So after 26 and a half years, I was free.

A lot of people looked at my situation and they say “Man, they locked up a kid for 26 years knowing he’s innocent, that’s messed up.” But I see it as God took me. I grew up gangbanging, selling drugs…I wasn’t a saint. (Now) I’m a man of faith. So once I started understanding the words of the Bible, and then I started looking at Jonah and how God told him to go somewhere and he disobeyed and tried to go somewhere else, He put him in the belly of the whale. When the whale spit him out, he went in the direction God wanted him to go. 

It just so happens that my 26 years was in the belly of the whale. I find myself right now, just trying to get out here and make sure the young people get a fair chance and a fair opportunity. It sounds a little better when it comes from someone like me — someone who went through the same life they’re going through, same struggles.

My mom passed away in 2015. Her head had been hurting. She had heart surgery…the medicine they gave her, they said 5% of the people that took it, caused their brain to bleed. I wish I would have known that before. 

When she was here physically, she couldn’t watch over me. Now, she can see everything, so I make it my point to make her proud every day.

Rebecca Najera is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact her at rnajera@oklahomawatch.org or (903) 808-0314. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaNajera42.

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