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Prosecuting killers – Capital Litigation in Oklahoma


 

Day 8, US research trip, Believe No One

Believe No One takes Fennimore & Simms to the United States Mid West.
These blogs document the places we visited and people we met during the research trip.

Tuesday, 8th May 2012

Assistant DA Pamela Hammers is Capital Litigation Resource Prosecutor – the Statewide Prosecutor for the death penalty. There are  77 counties in Oklahoma, and 75 of those counties are represented by rural DA districts.

Creek County District Court, Sapulpa

Creek County District Court, Sapulpa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Voir Dire is the American term for jury selection. Both sides (prosecution and defence) get nine chances to refuse a juror during the selection process. I ask if they use body language specialists, as portrayed in some fictional representations of American courts. They would, she says, but they can’t afford them. Some prosecutors go by the maxim: ‘Never leave a preacher or a teacher’ on the jury, the logic being that both professions are too keen to ‘save’ the accused.

At Voir Dire, the judge will ask some general questions about where the jurors live, what qualifications they have etc. To be eligible for jury service, the requirements are that they must live in the county, and must not have a conviction. Selection is by DMV licence, rather than voter selection (over 90% of Tulsans own cars, so I guess it’s easier to find people that way). The court will generally retain an ‘alternate’ (or maybe two) on the jury who will listen to the evidence and arguments, but won’t vote unless someone drops out or is excused during the course of the trail.

The judge dictates how things are done. Prosecutors must adapt the way they present a case to the judge’s own style and preferences, and need to know how he runs his court – it really is ‘his’ court.

Judges are supposed to remain impartial, but some do, ‘direct the traffic’. Some are so anxious to be seen to be fair, that ‘he splits the baby’.  Judges don’t want the public to think that their cases are getting backlogged (remember most judges are elected by the public) and it’s not unknown for a judge to influence a result to please one section of the community or another.  Appeal courts tend to defer to trial judges unless there is a clear indication of bias.

At any time, there may be up to 100 1st degree murder trials pending in Oklahoma’s  25 rural districts. Prosecutors tend to be selective in deciding which cases are tried with the death penalty in mind. There would be aggravating circumstances, such as the elimination of witnesses.  While DAs are not seeking the death penalty so much, it is used as a bargaining lever. The alternative to a death sentence is life without parole.

Lethal injection: in the past, 3 prescribed drugs were combined (to make sure death was quick and painless), but now that is considered cruel and unusual punishment. Added to this, American States which still carry out capital sentences are having difficulty obtaining the cocktail of drugs since European pharmaceutical suppliers objected to their use in executions.

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