Sex offenders and sentencing

Austin Goodman 

Editor's note: Cleveland County judges' comments in this story were not made in reference to any specific case.

NORMAN — When a person convicted of a sex crime is given a suspended or deferred sentence, it doesn’t stop with probation.

Each time a judge is met with a plea deal that both parties agree on, trust is a factor.

“As a judge, when a district attorney comes to you and says this is what we want, and the defense agrees, a lot of deference is given,” Cleveland County Special Judge Steve Stice said. “A judge has to trust that the defense and prosecution has weighed all of the evidence and looked at all the options.”

Yes All Daughters co-founder and sexual assault victim advocate Christina Owen said giving people convicted of sexual assault suspended and deferred sentences shows that physical violence is more important than sexual violence.

“You wouldn’t give someone convicted of murder or manslaughter suspended or deferred sentence,” she said. “People who are victims of sexual assault live in fear of their offender constantly and the [justice system] doesn’t help them get the justice they seek.”

Owen said sexual assault victims are punished more severely by the community than their violators are being punished by the system.

“Sexual assault victims go through so much to bring what happened to them out into the open,” she said. “When these victims see that their offenders don’t see a day in jail, they feel defeated.”

Owen and other concerned parents and advocates formed Yes All Daughters in response to the rape of a Norman High School student in 2015. Tristen Killman-Hardin, 20, pleaded no contest to two counts of first-degree rape in 2015.

Earlier this month, Killman-Hardin was arrested near Norman North High School, which is a violation of the Sex Offender Registry Act. Since his arrest, Yes All Daughters created an online petition advocating for Killman-Hardin to be returned to prison.

“We hope by sending [Killman-Hardin] back to jail, District Attorney Greg Mashburn will show that, in Norman, we take these offenders seriously,” Owen said.

Speaking in general terms, Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman said putting people in prison isn’t always the best option.

“Often, sending people to prison is a more expensive alternative to giving someone a suspended or deferred sentence,” he said.

Austin Russell Goodman pleaded guilty Nov. 7 to three felony counts of performing lewd or indecent acts to a child. Balkman accepted his plea and gave Russell a seven-year suspended sentence for each count, which is ordered to run consecutively.

That means Russell will not to go to prison as long as he follows guidelines set forth by the court, including following the rules of his supervised probation.

In addition to serving probation, since he was convicted of a sex crime, Goodman will have to register as a sex offender, a label that prevents him from being near children, schools and parks, and limits where he can reside, among other restrictions. 

If a person violates the rules of his or her probation while on a suspended sentence, they could serve the full-term of their sentence. Balkman said if a person is found guilty of violating their probation, it is at the discretion of the judge to sentence the person to serve their prison sentence.

“If it is reported by Oklahoma Court Services (OCS) that someone violated his or her probation, the district attorney files a motion to revoke (MTR) their suspended sentence,” he said. “In Oklahoma, judges are granted broad sentencing powers. [The sentence] is based on the rules of the violation, the nature of the crime and the elements surrounding it.”

There are similarities between a suspended and a deferred sentence, but there is also a key difference, Balkman said.

“Both (suspended and deferred) means you won’t go to jail, but the biggest difference is if someone receives a deferred sentence and does everything they need to, the charge will be dismissed,” Balkman said. “With a suspended sentence, you are convicted and you will always have that crime on your record.”

According to Norman defense attorney Elton Jenkins, another difference between a suspended and deferred sentence is if someone is convicted of a sex crime, they cannot receive a deferred sentence.

Jenkins said there are two ways a suspended and deferred sentence can be given: both parties agreeing or by blind plea, which is where a judge hears arguments from the defense and prosecution and determines a verdict.

“You can get a suspended sentence for anything,” he said. “The only time someone can’t is if they have two or more prior felony convictions. Theoretically, there could be a suspended sentence in a murder case. It’s not likely, but it’s a legal possibility.”

Balkman said Oklahoma Court Services is vital to helping people who have to go through the probation process.

“OCS does an amazing job. They are able to hold these people’s feet to the fire and help them become successful and avoid committing future crimes,” Balkman said.

OCS owner Julia Curry said the organization’s job is to monitor those on probation and make sure they follow the rules set by the court.

“We want them to be clean, sober and working so that they can stay out of the court system and be successful in completion of their probation,” she said.

Curry said if a person violates their probation, a violation report is filed with the district attorney, but it’s not always immediate.

“If someone misses an appointment, we won’t immediately file a violation report,” she said. “We have a time frame that we have to bring the person back into compliance before we submit a violation report.”

According to ok.gov, if a person is convicted of certain sex crimes, they must register as a sex offender.

These crimes could include: kidnapping (if the offense involves sexual abuse), incest, forcible sodomy, indecent exposure and rape.

Three levels for sex crimes determine the duration of sex offender registration.

Those convicted of crimes such as indecent exposure or possession of child pornography are classified as Level 1 offenders. 

Anyone convicted of soliciting sexual conduct or communication with a minor and procuring a child under 18 years of age for prostitution or lewdness is labeled a Level 2 offender.

Level 3 offenders are people who are found guilty of first- or second-degree rape and lewd or indecent proposals or acts to a child. 

Level 1 offenders are required to register for 15 years, Level 2 offenders for 25 years and Level 3 for life.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, there were 6,443 registered sex offenders as of Oct. 31. 

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Jacob McGuire is the Crime and Courts reporter for The Norman Transcript. McGuire is currently pursuing his MPA at the University of Oklahoma.