Claremore Daily Progress

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July 4, 2014

Prosecutors review services for victims

OKLAHOMA CITY —  As Sharon Roberts drove nearly 11 hours to Oklahoma from her home near Nashville, Tenn., she carefully composed the words she wanted her brother’s killer to remember.

Roberts confronted a sobbing Mary Courtney York in May with a 21-page statement detailing the pain inflicted upon her family by the escort and her companion, Christopher Cody King.

York and King shot Roberts’ brother, Patrick Burton, 51, during a robbery in February 2013. The couple, ages 19 and 24 at the time, then set fire to his home in Norman - with his body inside - killing his beloved dog and leaving his mother homeless.

“It’s a very hard thing to do,” Roberts said of the victim impact statement. “… It’s like reliving that nightmare over and over again.”

Roberts, her mother and their family were guided through the criminal proceedings against York and King by Cleveland County victim’s advocacy program, part of the district attorney’s office. Such programs, which are required by law, have been in place for more than three decades to connect victims and their families to prosecutors.

But Roberts said she was frustrated by the system. She had trouble getting calls to prosecutors returned, she said, and found the court system complex. She said it was difficult to get enough notice to attend hearings in the case; she lives more than 700 miles away and wanted to be at every one.

Roberts said she felt ignored as prosecutors negotiated a plea deal with York, which amounted to less than 20 years in prison. King was convicted of murder, arson and larceny last year.

It’s very, very aggravating. The whole system was,” she said.

Complains like Roberts’ are reverberating throughout the court system, as critics say the state has fallen down in its legal obligation to victims.

‘Dearth of Consequences’    

In May, just as Roberts and her family saw the second of Burton’s two murderers sentenced, Oklahoma’s Multicounty Grand Jury issued a report that complained of a “dearth of consequences” for prosecutors who don’t ensure victims’ protections that are codified in law and guaranteed by the state Constitution.

The grand jury, which assesses whether enough evidence exists to issue criminal indictments and investigates other matters of statewide concern, delivered its findings after looking into a mother’s charges of prosecutorial incompetence in Rogers County.

Kristen Rohr, the crusading mother of a child victim, said she remains furious with a deal struck by Rogers County prosecutors with a man who had been accused of lewd molestation of her daughter, then 3 years old.

Thomas Lou Dougan was initially charged in August 2009. Two and a half years later, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of indecent exposure, which required him to register as a sex offender. Rohr and her husband, a Claremore police officer, said they were not kept informed of plea negotiations.

Rogers County District Attorney Janice Steidley says her office did, in fact, keep Rohr and her husband apprised of developments. And the grand jury found that Steidley and other county officials had not broken the law in that case or with respect to a litany of other allegations.

But the grand jury seized the opportunity to criticize the treatment of victims, in general.

“Despite these firm foundations in the Oklahoma Constitution and Oklahoma Statutes, no penalties exist for the failure to adhere to these requirements,” it reported. The panel called upon “all district attorneys to adopt best practices in the critical field of victim services.”

Those include documentation as plea deals are reached, the grand jury said. The court record should note, for example, whether a victim or victim’s family are present in the courtroom when a plea is entered; whether victims have been advised of the plea; and whether victims agree to the terms of the deal.

The panel also recommended that victim impact statements be preserved with court records of the judgment and sentence.

In addition, the grand jury said district attorneys’ offices should document all contacts with victims, including details as to when they tried to reach a victim.

Committed Coordinators

Susan Caswell, first assistant district attorney for the 21st district, which worked with Burton’s survivors, said she’s sorry that Sharon Roberts and her mother had a negative experience.

“I feel bad if that’s what she took away from this experience,” said Caswell. “That makes me sad because that’s not what we try to do and not what we thought we did with her. We work really hard to help them get through a really difficult time.”

Caswell said the county’s victim coordinator and detectives spent time explaining the process, communicated frequently, and worked to ensure that Roberts could attend hearings.

Caswell noted that victim coordinators work with thousands of victims each year. “Some families need a lot more contact than other families,” she said.

And while prosecutors always ask for input, Caswell said prosecutors ultimately decide how to proceed with plea agreements because doing otherwise would put victims in the unfair position of deciding “what’s fair for someone that hurt them.”

Caswell said Roberts’ feelings are atypical. The coordinators in Cleveland County “spend hours on the phones with victims and the victims’ families because we can’t necessarily do that as prosecutors on the case,” she said. Many victims and their families send flowers, thank-you notes and cookies after the fact.

“They’re just really good at it in this county,” she said.

Melissa McLawhorn Houston, chief of staff for Attorney General Scott Pruitt, said the state has “great history” on victim’s rights. Its laws were codified more than three decades ago.

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