Office of Justice Programs (OJP)

Capital Litigation and Homicide Resource Prosecution Initiative

BJA Program(s): Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program
State(s): OK

Grantee Agency: See below

Grant Amount/Year(s): FY 2009/$185,000; FY 2010/$185,000; FY 2011/$185,000

About the Program:

Oklahoma is comprised of twenty-five (25) rural district attorney districts and two (2) metropolitan district attorney districts, Oklahoma and Tulsa counties. The twenty-five (25) rural district attorney districts represent seventy-five (75) of the seventy-seven (77) counties in Oklahoma. As is the case with all criminal cases, capital murder cases are generally handled by the individual District Attorney's office in which the cases are filed. Currently, there are more than one hundred first-degree murder cases pending in the twenty-five (25) rural district attorney districts.

In Oklahoma, the experience level of the prosecutors that handle capital murder cases varies widely. Not only is experience in handling capital cases a concern, the resources available to assist rural prosecutors are extremely limited in many of the district attorney districts. Since FY 2009, the statewide district attorney's system has suffered a twenty percent (20%) reduction in state appropriated dollars. Consequently, there is a great need within Oklahoma's statewide district attorney system to develop centralized resources to aid prosecutors in the handling of capital murder cases from the initial determination to seek the death penalty through trial. The Capital Litigation Resource Program was created for this specific purpose.

The Capital Litigation and Homicide Prosecution (CLHP) Initiative funds one Capital Litigation Resource Prosecutor (CLRP). The CLRP directly assists the seventy-five (75) rural county district attorney offices in Oklahoma by providing technical assistance, legal guidance and when needed assisting with the actual prosecution of capital murder cases by participating in court hearings and trials. The CLRP is also available to aid the two metropolitan district attorney offices, Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, as needed. In addition to trial assistance, the CLRP develops much needed capital litigation and homicide resources, such as motions and briefs, and develops and provides specialized training for prosecutors and their prosecution team, including investigators and law enforcement in the area of capital murder.

Program Successes/Effect on the Community:

Within the first year of the program, several advanced trainings have been provided to more than 100 prosecutors. These trainings have focused on specific areas in capital litigation that continue to be scrutinized and evolve over the years. Second stage proceedings, mental retardation, ethics in discovery, and constitutional law are just a few of the topics that have been addressed in these advanced trainings.

In Oklahoma, the district attorney faces an election every four years. This increases the possibility of turnover and newer, less experienced prosecutors being thrust into capital litigation situations. With this in mind, the CLRP has tailored several trainings to educate new prosecutors who have found themselves in this position. Specifically, these trainings have been focused on the process of filing a death penalty case and the procedural differences faced in capital cases.

While capital litigation training is crucial for prosecutors, the Oklahoma judiciary is another critical component in the capital litigation process. In 2011, the Capital Litigation Program partnered with the Oklahoma Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to provide training in capital litigation to newly elected judges. Similar to the situation with prosecutors, district and associate district judges in Oklahoma are also elected to four-year terms. Therefore, it is conceivable that a newly elected judge may be called upon to try death penalty cases with limited or no experience. With this in mind, the Capital Litigation Program and the AOC partnered to educate and update Oklahoma judges on critical procedures and issues in the area of capital litigation. By involving the judiciary in the training process, the Capital Litigation Program provides critical skills to all those involved in the capital litigation process.

In addition to training, another success of the Capital Litigation Program has been the accumulation and distribution of resources to prosecutors with regards to capital litigation. For example, more than 180 motions, briefs and responses, including a death penalty handbook, have been distributed to prosecutors across the state. Real examples, such as the proper process to file a Bill of Particulars, providing proper notice of victim impact evidence, and responses to discovery motions are readily available any time to prosecutors handling capital litigation cases. Capital litigation research and case law are also easily accessible and provided to prosecutors handling these types of cases. All of these resources are housed electronically in a centralized intranet brief bank for those prosecutors in need.

Finally, there has been great success with the practical application of the Capital Litigation Program. The CLRP has provided the much needed experience, training and resources to the rural jurisdictions to successfully prosecute capital cases. From the preliminary hearing stage of a case through trial or plea, the CLRP has taken the training and resources provided through the Capital Litigation Program to the actual District Attorney districts in Oklahoma. Most importantly, Oklahoma District Attorneys have responded positively to the program, assisting with trainings, providing guidance on important issues, and enlisting assistance from the CLRP. The CLRP has fielded over 80 technical assistance requests and directly assisted ten (10) different counties in Oklahoma with actual courtroom preparation and trial.

Capital murder cases routinely involve a myriad of complex issues such as: evidentiary issues dealing with the collection, preservation and testing of biological evidence; identification and interrogation related issues; and mental disability or mental illness issues. The cases are highly scrutinized on appeal, a process that generally takes years. When error is found, the passage of time, erosion of memory, and dispersion of witnesses makes retrial extremely challenging and costly. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that these cases be handled correctly all the way through the process by well-trained judges and prosecutors.

Communities in Oklahoma expect fair and equitable justice. By taking a hard look at the current capital litigation process and trying to address problems and issues within the process, it is our hope that the use of capital punishment in Oklahoma will be done with the discretion and proper prudence that it requires.

Learn More:
To learn more about the program, please contact:
Pamela Hammers
Capital Litigation Resource Prosecutor
Email: Pamela.hammers@dac.state.ok.us
Phone: 405-264-5000

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