BY RICHARD L. FRICKER
Barely had the Thanksgiving plates been cleared than the ghouls of Christmas fell upon us.
Reps. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, and Mike Reynolds, R-OKC, are once again using the tragedy of children to promote the neo-con agenda of aborting the concept of an independent judiciary.
At issue is the 12-year sentence imposed on Larry Martin Neeley, 36, by Tulsa District Court Judge William Kellough [pronounced Kel-log] for the murder of Jason Joseph Hall, just shy of 20 months old.
Following a jury trial in October, Neeley was found guilty of first-degree murder. Jurors recommended a life sentence. Judge Kellough in effect imposed a life sentence on Keeley – 12 years in prison and a lifetime of probation. Since the jury did not arrive at a Life Without Parole [LWOP] the sentence was within keeping of the statutory guidelines.
Reps. Ritze and Reynolds are now using that sentence to promote – yet again – legislation that would allow removal of judges who do not comply with the conservative concept of justice.
More to the point: jurors who have gone public on the matter agree with Judge Kellough’s sentence.
Ritze and Reynolds have failed to inform the public that they know nothing of the case, did not attend the trial, heard no testimony or saw any evidence. Their lack of information and first-hand knowledge leads one to believe that it is not the tragedy at the root of their legislative attempts, but rather the desire to wrest independence from the judiciary.
Their righteousness is devoid of other elements. Judge Kellough noted at the time of sentencing that this was not a crime of rage and that the defendant had expressed true signs of remorse.
Judge Kellough attended every minute of the trial, heard all the testimony and was able to observe the defendant throughout the proceedings. The question arises as to who is best to judge the defendant’s demeanor – Judge Kellough or a couple of crackpot legislators out to feather their conservative nests.
The jurors who have spoken out on the matter have made their dilemma known; they had only two choices – first-degree murder or manslaughter. The jury felt it was more than manslaughter but less than murder. They found for murder.
Neeley said he pulled young Hall from a bunkbed ladder and that the lad was injured in the ensuing fall. Neeley’s defense was that it was an accident.
Jurors felt it was more than an accident, but that the injuries were not intended. In essence, they agree with Judge Kellough. Ritze and Reynolds have failed to mention this part of the story to their followers.
In short, Judge Kellough did the right thing in a situation that had no real solution. That’s what we pay judges to do – use their judgment. But good judgment and justice are not part of the Ritze-Reynolds agenda.
During the last legislative session the pair introduced House Resolution 1065 calling for the removal of a district court judge. This legislative chicanery was brought about by the one-year sentence imposed on David Harold Earls by Pittsburgh County District Judge Thomas Bartheld.
The one-year sentence was part of a plea agreement arrived at by the victim’s parents, the district attorney and the defendant. Ritze-Reynolds felt that Judge Bartheld should have refused the agreement and ordered the case to trial, and because he didn’t, he should be removed from office.
Considering that these two claim they are concerned about children, why did it never occur to them to consult with someone before they opened their legislative mouths? They would have found that the parents of the victim did not want the child to testify. And prosecutors felt the child would make a poor witness at trial.
It was also later learned that there were serious holes in the state’s case. They would have learned that in this case a guilty plea of any kind was a win.
But it is not the children or justice for children that seems to be the Ritze-Reynolds goal – it is to have a whip with which to threaten judges they feel are not in compliance with their agenda of all conservative all the time. Of course they and like-thinking conservatives will define justice for all.
Using the specter of abused children, the tragedy of families and misstatements, these two prey on the judicial ignorance of the population in their attempt to take away one of the basic tenets of our republic, an independent judiciary.
Of course judges get it wrong at times; that’s why we have appellate courts at every level of criminal, civil and administrative in our state system. Overall the system works. Could it work better? Yes. Should judges fear impeachment just because a gaggle of neo-con, teabag birthers don’t like how they ruled? NO.
Judge Kellough got it right. Judge Bartheld got it right. Ritze-Reynolds don’t care.
– Tulsa, OK journalist Richard L. Fricker has covered the courts for four decades. His reporting for the American Bar Association Journal has won national awards. He is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer.