By Janelle Stecklein
The Norman Transcript
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 said 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.
Victims are different: Houston said the attorney general’s office is reviewing the grand jury’s report to decide if existing laws should be strengthened. She said some recommendations could simply be addressed through training, rather than passing new laws.
“I think the main consequence is there should be an attitude that our victims deserve a criminal justice system that works, that is cognizant of their rights and that respects them through the process,” she said.
However, helping victims and their families is far from simple, said Lesley Smith March, who leads the attorney general’s victim’s advocacy program. Advocates exist for people who are most likely unfamiliar with the court system, and cases and circumstances vary widely.
“Victims’ families and victims are all different,” said March, who also worked as a prosecutor in Grady County. “Some people, when their loved one is murdered, they want to appear at the first court appearance. They want to look at the defendant. Other family members have told us in the past, ‘I can’t bear to be there. I don’t want to.’”
Such considerations, she said, are why prosecutors must have open communication with the families of victims.
Steidley believes victims’ rights are of utmost importance, said her spokeswoman, Michelle Lowry, in a statement. She noted that Steidley has changed in protocols in her office since taking office in 2011 to be more victim friendly. (Steidley lost a bid for a second term to a challenger in June’s Republican primary.)
For example, Steidley has made it mandatory that three people are assigned to each case involving a victim — a prosecutor, victim witness coordinator and legal assistant.
“We never want a victim to be missed,” Steidley said in a statement.
Call for change: Pamela Stonebarger, a retired teacher, has a similar story as Roberts. A decade after her 22-year-old son was stabbed nine times and murdered, Stonebarger remains outraged by the “horrible, just horrible” experience she had with the criminal justice system in Muskogee County.
Stonebarger said she had no clue that the state was supposed to offer her support and financial help in coping with her son’s death until a sympathetic medical examiner slipped a pamphlet inside her son’s autopsy report.
“I didn’t know that there was help for victims. I had to figure out everything on my own,” she said.
Stonebarger ultimately learned about the Victim’s Rights Act, which specifies how district attorneys interact with crime victims. The process would work better, she said, if elected officials faced some consequences for failing to comply with the law.
Stonebarger became active after her son’s death. She said she helped lead a campaign to get the former district attorney voted out of office. She now works in the county probation office and each year coordinates a gathering for families of murder victims.
“People forget, but we never do,” she said. “We live with it 24/7.”
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