Expert child abuse team would be housed at OSBI

By Tom Blakey

Transcript Staff Writer

The death penalty could be imposed on people repeatedly convicted of raping children under legislation that received final passage in the Oklahoma House Friday.

The bill additionally would create a statewide team of expert child abuse investigators within the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, available to assist local law enforcement in handling difficult child abuse cases.

State Sen. Jonathan Nichols, R-Norman, author of SB 1800, said the legislation has passed both the House and Senate, and now awaits Gov. Brad Henry's signature. Henry has not said whether he will sign the measure.

The measure authorizes the death penalty or life imprisonment for people convicted of raping children younger than 14 after a prior conviction. Currently, the death penalty can be applied in the state only to those convicted of first-degree murder.

"This death penalty provision sends a clear message to child predators in our state -- 'We will find you, we will prosecute you and then we will put you to death,'" Nichols said.

Nichols said current law mandates child predators be sentenced to life without parole --?a sentence made mandatory four years ago when Nichols' SB 1425 was signed into law. SB 1800 contains language by Sen. Jay Paul Gumm that would make repeat child molesters subject to the death penalty as well. Nichols said he believes the addition of the death penalty amendment would put Oklahoma at the forefront in strengthening laws against child predators.

"This bill gives us two strong weapons to combat child abuse in Oklahoma," he said.

The measure would create a statewide team of expert child abuse investigators available to assist local law enforcement in child abuse cases. Membership on the Child Abuse Response Team, or CART, would require primary investigator status on at least 500 cases of physical or sexual abuse of a child or completion of at least 100 hours of training on forensic interviewing of a child.

Nichols said the establishment of CART would give local law enforcement access to some of the most experienced child abuse investigators in the state. Operating as an on-call response team, CART would be available at the request of local law enforcement agencies, just as other emergency response units are available to law enforcement statewide.

Nichols said he believes the Child Abuse Response Team would complement the Kelsey Briggs Act which grants judges and the Department of Human Services the authority to call in the OSBI to assist in local child abuse cases. At such times, the OSBI would send out members of its Child Abuse Response Team, Nichols said.

CART members would be employed by the OSBI at senior agent level pay, empowering the OSBI to recruit the "best and brightest child abuse investigators in Oklahoma," he said.

The House voted 88-8 for the Senate-passed measure. Supporters of SB 1800 said the death penalty is warranted for repeat pedophiles. Opposition argued the Supreme Court has already ruled the death penalty unconstitutional when applied to cases of rape.

Nichols said he believes the Supreme Court decision cited by the opposition pertains to adult rape -- not rape of a child.

"I believe that our highest court will agree that this crime of raping a child is so heinous and horrific that the death penalty is a right and just punishment," he said.

The legislation constitutes "significant reform within the state's efforts to investigate and prosecute child abuse," Nichols said.

Tom Blakey 366-3540 tblakey@normantranscript.com

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