On May 24, 2004, Wade Lay and his 19-year-old son Christopher entered the MidFirst Bank in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Wade carried a .40 caliber handgun, Christopher a sawed-off shotgun.
“His plan was we’ll get some money and we’ll take our revenge or we’ll start our revolution,” Christopher, now 34, told The Appeal. His father was determined, he said, to avenge the deaths of those killed in the federal government’s deadly 1993 standoff with the Branch Davidians, a religious sect, in Waco, Texas.
Inside the bank, in less than a minute, security guard Kenneth Anderson exchanged gunfire with the Lays. All three were shot. Anderson died at the scene.
Wade and Christopher fled and were arrested the same day. Over objections from Christopher’s counsel, they were tried together in September 2005.
The trial judge permitted Wade to represent himself, according to a petition filed on Wade’s behalf last year. Symptoms of what would later be diagnosed by the Bureau of Prisons’ examiner as paranoid schizophrenia were apparent during trial, according to Wade’s appellate attorneys, but he was not evaluated to determine his competency to stand trial.
“Well, it was a miracle what happened in 1776 and it won’t happen again,” Wade told the jurors, according to the transcript. “We have nowhere else to retreat. And I see it crumbling and the founders warned us of this time. Just like the Apostle Paul.”
The jury convicted them both of murder. Wade was sent to death row, where he remains. Christopher was sentenced to life without parole along with 25 years for attempted robbery. He is now seeking a commutation from the governor.
The case has echoes of Mathena v. Malvo, which is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Both cases revolve around a young, impressionable man alleged to have been influenced by a destructive mentor. And both reflect an ongoing national debate over which young people should be protected from the most severe sentences and be allowed an opportunity for release.
In 2012, the Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole sentences for people under 18 in Miller v. Alabama, and in 2016, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, it made that decision retroactive, leading to the potential resentencing of about 2,000 people.
Lee Boyd Malvo, who participated in the so-called D.C. sniper shootings in 2002 at age 17, was given four life without parole sentences by the state of Virginia. The question now before the court is whether his sentence, which Virginia argues is excluded from the ban, should still be subject to Miller and Montgomery. Oral arguments were heard this week.
Christopher Lay’s case raises an additional question: Should the Court’s rulings also apply to those in their late teens? Researchers say these young adults are not that different from those a few years younger. Adolescents are more impulsive than older adults, research has found, and more susceptible to negative peer pressure; their brains are not fully developed until their mid-20s.
“There is an increasing call to extend the sentencing principles identified by the Supreme Court in the juvenile sentencing cases to this young adult population really almost as a principle of fairness,” said Marsha Levick, co-founder of Juvenile Law Center, when she heard the details of Lay’s case. Juvenile Law Center filed an amicus brief on behalf of Malvo. “They are pretty much the same individuals in terms of the concerns for culpability and blameworthiness.”
Lay’s case is not the first to try to extend the reach of the Supreme Court’s landmark decisions to older teens. Lawyers with the Abolitionist Law Center in Pennsylvania have asked the state’s appeals courts to grant Avis Lee a hearing in which she can challenge her sentence, based on Miller and Montgomery. She was sentenced to life without parole for a murder that occurred when she was 18. She is now 58.
Some courts have granted such requests. Last year, a federal court in Connecticut ruled in the case of Luis Noel Cruz that Miller applies to 18-year-olds. Cruz was sentenced to life without parole for murders he committed when he was 18.
In 2017, a Kentucky judge found that it was unconstitutional to sentence a person to death who was under the age of 21 at the time of the crime. “Under feelings of stress, anger, fear, threat, etc., the brain of a 20-year-old functions similarly to a 16- or 17-year-old,” wrote Fayette Circuit Court Judge Ernesto Scorsone.
In the Lay case, Juvenile Law Center’s Levick said, the combination of Christopher’s age and his father’s influence created “a very toxic mix that led to quite tragic results.”
Until he was 12, Christopher lived with his father and mother, who home-schooled him and his two sisters, according to court documents. In 1997, his mother left with his sisters, and Christopher and Wade began an isolated and itinerant life together, moving from state to state. They lived in motels, apartments, vehicles, and under bridges, according to a report prepared for the defense by Wanda Draper, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Oklahoma. Draper interviewed Christopher and his family members before trial. As a teen, she reported, Christopher picked up odd jobs to help support himself and his father, who was often unemployed and drank heavily.
“Chris took care of his father,” Draper told The Appeal. When she spoke with Christopher before trial, she said, he was “still very much under his father’s spell.”
At the time of their trial, Doug Drummond, an assistant district attorney, said the Lays were “operating outside of reality,” according to Tulsa World.
Christopher told The Appeal that because he was not in school, his only teacher was his father, who believed the government was persecuting him, Christopher said.
He arrived at prison with “zero education,” he said. He focused on reading to be more like his father, who he then considered his hero.
“I knew nothing,” he said. “In reading to become like him, I discovered the things that made me realize he was wrong.”
During his 14 years in prison, he earned a GED and a bachelor’s degree and now tutors incarcerated students at Dick Conner Correctional Center.
“How much he’s invested in those who will get out has been amazing to me,” said Lisa Weis, a former Langston University associate vice president who ran classes at Dick Conner Correctional Center. Weis, Draper, and members of Lay’s family support Lay’s commutation application.
Kim Tryon, Anderson’s sister, opposes Christopher’s release. “Mr. Lay should spend the rest of his life in prison for taking my brother’s life,” she emailed The Appeal. “I believe he should have gotten the death penalty as his father did. My family and I will do everything in our power to make sure he spends the rest of his life in prison.”
In 2015, Christopher wrote to Anderson’s daughter to apologize. She wrote back a year later and they exchanged a series of letters. “I’m so ashamed of what I did to you,” he wrote. “Even as I write this, I hang my head, as I always would if you were in front of me.”
“After getting away from my father and the trap that he is, I grew into the person I was supposed to be,” wrote Christopher in that first letter. “That shames me perhaps as much as anything. I stand on your shoulders, on your dad’s shoulders, and I have no right to.”
The last letter he sent was returned, Christoper told The Appeal; she had moved. He has not heard from her since.
Lay’s chance for commutation could benefit from the election of Governor Kevin Stitt, who took office in January. Though Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the world, the new governor and the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board seem committed to tackling mass incarceration, according to advocates.
In February, three of Stitt’s appointments joined the five-member board. From March through August, the board recommended 140 people for commutation, compared with 10 people over the same time period last year, according to the board’s data.
Steven Bickley, who came on as the board’s executive director in July, said the board doesn’t publicly discuss individual pending cases. The increase in approved commutations reflects changing laws and a new understanding of how people can successfully return to their communities, Bickley told The Appeal.
“Criminal justice reform is giving a lot of legitimacy to commutation applications,” he said. “There’s been fundamental underlying changes in the public’s attitude [and] in the laws.” The board, he said, looks very closely at misconduct in prison, believing that “if you can follow the rules on the inside, you can follow the rules on the outside.”
Although the board is prioritizing applications from people impacted by recent reforms to laws governing drug and property crimes, it is considering other cases as well. This month, the board recommended commutation for Tondalao Hall, who was serving 30 years for “failing to protect” her children from a boyfriend’s abuse. In September 2018, the previous board had rejected her application.
To be considered for commutation in Oklahoma, an applicant’s case must meet one of three criteria: the sentence is excessive, the sentence is excessive due to facts not known by the court or jury at the time of trial, or the sentence appears excessive due to a change in statute.
Despite progress in Oklahoma, more work is needed, according to Ryan Gentzler, a policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute. The state must change both how charging decisions are made and its sentencing practices, including for those convicted of violent crimes, he said.
“If Chris Lay would have been tried in a different county with a different judge or prosecutor that understood the power dynamics between him and his father, I think the outcome could have been much, much different,” said Gentzler. “We just need to do a whole lot more work in getting justice professionals that understand trauma and the human mind.”
Juvenile Law Center is a sponsor of Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg’s documentary play on young people sentenced to life and her upcoming play on young people on the sex offender registry.