When a retired librarian in Oregon started corresponding with a man in a Louisiana prison, neither of them could have imagined it would lead to his release and exoneration. Yutico Briley was sentenced to 60 years without parole at the age of 19 for an armed robbery he didn’t commit. He wrote to journalist and author Emily Bazelon, pleading with her to cover his case and the many injustices that lead to his conviction. His letter remained unread until Briley’s longtime pen pal, Karen Oehler, emailed Bazelon and urged her to look at it. Bazelon chronicled the years-long struggle that followed in a recent New York Times Magazine article. After he was released in March, Briley visited Oehler in Oregon. We hear from Briley and Oehler about how their ongoing friendship has affected both of their lives.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: When a retired school librarian in Oregon started corresponding with a man in a Louisiana prison neither of them could have imagined it would lead to his exoneration. Yutico Briley was sentenced to 60 years without parole at the age of 19 for an armed robbery he did not commit. He wrote to the journalist Emily Bazelon pleading with her to cover his case. His letter remained unread until Briley’s longtime penpal, Karen Oehler, the retired Oregon librarian emailed Bazelon and urged her to look at it. Bazelon did, setting off a chain of events that led to Yutico Briley’s exoneration and release in March. Meanwhile, the friendship between Briley and Oehler has continued. In fact, he visited her in Oregon this summer. Yutico, I’m curious, do you remember the first time you got a letter from Karen?
Yutico Briley: It was actually in 2017. She sent me a happy birthday letter.
Miller: What did it mean to you to get physical mail or electronic messages at that time?
Briley: By the length of my sentence and the lack of support I had from my family and just in general, any kind of contact with people that took time to write to me in any kind of way felt very special to me.
Miller: Did you get other similar kinds of mail from other people did you have other pen pals?
Briley: I didn’t really have any consistent ones, but I had people from the same foundation, maybe random family members every now and again, but I didn’t really have anybody consistently writing to me.
Miller: Karen Oehler, when did you start writing letters to people in prisons?
Oehler: I started volunteering to send birthday and holiday cards to people in prison through an organization called Mothers of Incarcerated Sons Society. I’d seen a poster and I thought well that’s something I could do for people who are incarcerated. Kind of the funny backstory to this is that I sent out a card, probably one of ten that month in June, to Yutico and it was returned to me because the prison didn’t accept cards. They would only accept letters written with blue or black ink on white paper. So that’s when I sent a letter to Yutico with a birthday message. And if you would like I’ve got his letter in response that I can read a little bit of how he felt about that. [permission and acceptance]It says, “Karen, I would like to start off by thanking you for taking time out of your life to send me a birthday card. I would like to give you a hug for writing me a letter after the card was refused LOL. It made me feel cared about and warm on the inside reading your letter. I appreciate that very much.” And then he went on to tell me a little bit more about himself. He said, " I’ve been in prison since I was 19 and I was sentenced to 65 years for an armed robbery I did not commit. The judge offered me 12 years but I refused it because I felt like that was too long for something I didn’t do and had no knowledge of.” So that was just the beginning. I couldn’t believe that somebody would have a 65 years or 60 years sentence. So I immediately took it to heart and continued from that there on.
Miller: How was that getting the response like that and then starting a correspondence? How was that different from the responses you would get from the many other birthday cards you’d send out because it seems like you were writing a lot of letters to a lot of people in prison? Was this different?
Oehler: Well, I’ll correct that because generally speaking I would just send out cards and on some of the cards I would say if you would like to correspond I would make it known that I was retired and a librarian, so they wouldn’t think I was looking for romance or something. And so sometimes, they would respond and other times I didn’t include that because I already had enough letter writing to do. I didn’t write letters to everybody, but I did try to send birthday greetings or holiday greetings out to ten people a month if I could.
Miller: Yutico Briley, it’s striking. Even just some of those lines that Karen just read to us, you’re saying you’d like to give her a hug, that getting her letter made you feel cared about and warm on the inside. I imagine that’s not the kind of language you would use regularly around the men that you are serving time with. I’m wondering if writing these letters gave you an outlet to actually be more vulnerable than you could be in what I imagine was a more violent environment where you had to be on guard.
Briley: Well, I never really tried to be anything I was not like in prison so most people that know me and were close to me were already familiar with what type of person I was. And another thing, even right now, when I write a letter, I don’t rehearse it. I don’t just mess up or I just write like I’m feeling or thinking right now. So really when she read that to me just now I can remember feeling that [Oehler laughs] and I can actually remember writing that but if you would’ve asked me what exactly I told her, I probably couldn’t tell you [Briley and Oehler laugh]. But it was a great way of being able to express myself and actually over the years by contacting Miss Karen back and forth and even reading some of the books that she sent me, it improved my writing skills and even when we started talking to Emily. And my writing skills, even though I was a gifted student, were always like one of my weak subjects so it actually started off as an outlet. It was just a relief of stress or just being able to have someone to talk to us and my writing skills actually ended up flourishing.
Miller: Karen Oehler. It seems like once a librarian, always librarian. So you would send Yutico books?
Oehler: Yes, of course.
Miller: Yutico, how would you describe the relationship that developed between you and Karen?
Briley: Right now today I call her my mom and most people around me know when I would say my mom who I’m referring to. Over the years she ended up being like my mom because that’s who cared for me and that’s who made sure I was all right and even sent me books or whatever. That’s who played my mother role basically until I got released
Miller: Karen, what about you? How do you describe your relationship?
Oehler: Well, it is like a mother-son. I mean I worry about him. I care about how he’s doing. I’d probably like to know more about what he’s doing than he’s willing to share which is very typical, I think. I feel like we have a really good, strong relationship. We had a great time when he was out here and we really enjoyed getting to know each other better.
Miller: What was that like, Yutico? So this was just for the last month or so. Have you been to Oregon before?
Briley: No sir. The furthest I had been West was Texas so that was just a few hours away from New Orleans.
Miller: What was it like to see Miss Karen, as you called her, for the first time in person?
Briley: It was great. It was like a dream come true because all those years of course I wanted to meet her and we had several conversations about what we would like to do one day or what I like to do and so it was nice to be able to just finally go do it. It was like a dream come true. Like a goal that I have been waiting to accomplish,
Miller: Karen, where did you take you to go to show off the splendors of your state? Our state?
Oehler: What was funny is that we already had a camping trip planned for the day after he got here over to Central Oregon, we were going to a piano concert in Smith Rock of all places. And so that’s a very unusual thing to do over at Smith Rock. But that’s where we took him and he sort of was hinting that he would rather sleep in the RV that we were in, but we were firm about the fact that he was going to be in the tent. So he had his first camping and sleeping in a tent experience over in Central Oregon. You loved it, right Yutico?
Briley: Right, it was great.
Miller: All right now you sound like a real mom putting words in his mouth [all laugh]. That was fun.
Briley: She’s hilarious.
Miller: So you went to Smith Rock and saw a piano concert. Where else?
Oehler: And then on the way back we took a hike up to Tamanawas Falls because he hadn’t been hiking before and he did borrow my husband’s hat which made him look like Crocodile Dundee. So that was kind of a fun thing to be watching. And at one point there was a log across the creek and I said a lot of times you have to cross the log to go over the creek and so by gum he did it and did it twice so I could videotape it for him. And let’s see, we went to Hood River and just saw a little bit of the wind surfing there and where else? Oh yeah, we got him paddleboarding. We went out to Benson Lake and got the paddleboard out and Yutico, you tell about that one, though.
Briley: It was great, once I finally stood up on it, it was great.
Oehler: Did you really stand up on it?
Briley: It was just a fun experience and all the stuff that was just fun. Like I was having fun the whole time.
Miller: You can read in detail about Yutico’s story in the cover story of New York Times Magazine from a couple weeks ago [June 30,2021] by the staff writer Emily Bazelon. Yutico, at the beginning of this year there was reason to hope [with] a new DA who had been elected, then a new judge and a whole team of lawyers who were pressing your case. But on the other hand, you were very familiar with the system that had put you there. And it had a whole series of problems and bad decisions that led to your incarceration. And you had 50 years of your sentence ahead of you. How did you deal with the possibility of hope?
Briley: Well, I just started appreciating small things: just waking up; reading a lot of books so books were always an escape; reading letters from my mom; looking at pictures and stuff from nature away in the mountains, or I always just finding ways to escape my mind so it wasn’t in front of me or around me. I’m a big college football fan. I like all college sports. I just kept a goal in front of me every day or I just tried to work towards getting out and trying to do something to push me towards my goal.
Miller: And I’m wondering, was there a part of you that didn’t believe you would actually be released until you were actually outside the prison?
Briley: Exactly. Yes. Yes. Yeah. I really thought it was a dream with the new DA (District Attorney) and the new judge and everything was finalized. But still it was like a dream until I actually got out. I didn’t want to go to sleep for about 2-3 days because I thought it was going to be over with.
Miller: After you were released, you didn’t want to sleep?
Briley: No, I didn’t want to go to sleep.
Miller: Because you thought you’d wake up and the dream would be over, you’d be back in prison?
Briley: Right because I had like a million dreams about getting out of prison before.
Miller: Was that one of the dreams you had frequently when you were behind bars was that you were free.
Briley: I would have had dreams but just going through some regular stuff. Just having dreams like that’s the way of escaping reality. So I had those kinds of dreams all the time. So it was like real crazy, almost like a euphoria. I was almost dizzy.
Miller: Do you still feel that to some extent? I mean it’s been since March, it’s been half a year or so, a little bit less than that, but do you still feel that euphoria or dizziness?
Briley: Exactly. I feel it all the time. I can just wake up and appreciate the fact that I’m in a bedroom and not in the cell and just stare at the wall for two hours before I even get out of the bed, just walk around the house for like two or three hours and just appreciate the fact I could just do that every day almost.
Miller: Do you have to deal with the opposite now? I mean, dreams of being back in prison?
Briley: Oh no, no. There’s all the stuff like high blood pressure that went away because that part of my journey is over even though I encountered new stuff once I came home once I was released. But it’s like the traumatic part is over. It’s like I’m back from Iraq. I’m back from overseas. That’s what it feels like. So it’s like just right here, whatever I go through out here, it’s like easy, but I don’t find it as traumatic as the previous life that I’ve been living for the last nine years.
Miller: What are your hopes for your future right now?
Briley: When I first was released, I had a photographer from the New York Times and we got really acquainted and he immediately told me I had an eye for photography and videography. So right now, like in the next few weeks, I’m in the process of trying to get my own videography established and getting my own brand. I’ve got a ton of videos on my phone and all kinds of pictures of me and Miss Karen. That’s one of the things I’m really interested in. Besides going to school for coding but you know how this Covid is? I’ve been completing coding classes online.
Miller: Karen, are you and Yutico going to stay in touch?
Oehler: Oh, of course. Oh yeah. In fact, when he left, he said he’s coming back so I’m assuming he’ll be back and we can do more things out here. We’d love to have him back.
Miller: Get back on the stand up paddle board.
Oehler: Yeah, I don’t really know if he stood up, come on.
Miller: Ok, that’ll be for the next visit. Karen Oler and Yutico Briley, thanks very much for joining us. It was lovely talking to both of you.
Oehler/Briley: Well, thank you, it was good to talk to you.
Miller: Yutico Briley was recently released from prison after being exonerated. Karen Oehler is a retired school librarian and they started corresponding in 2017 and they are not going to stop.
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