A letter from a state appeals court judge indicates a gubernatorial veto handed down last May is causing a case backlog in the criminal courts that could delay executions and result in charges being dismissed against some accused criminals. For that reason and others, legislative leaders are contemplating a supplemental appropriation to the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.
"When Governor Keating vetoed the indigent defense budget last year, he opened up a huge legal loophole that could delay executions or allow some accused criminals to march back on to the streets without facing prosecution. We're trying to close that loophole before some human tragedy happens that we can't repair," said House Speaker Loyd Benson.
Speaker Benson and Senate President Stratton Taylor cited a recent letter from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, documenting backlogs that are already occurring in capital cases. The letter from Presiding Judge Charles Chapel
predicted the situation would "reach crisis proportion within the next few weeks."
"Governor Keating's veto may turn out to be a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card for a lot of accused criminals unless we take some action to reverse it," said Senator Taylor. "If OIDS doesn't get the money it needs to carry out its constitutional responsibilities, the courts are going to start letting people go."
The federal courts require that all accused criminals who are declared indigent be provided legal representation. Because of the growing number of indigent cases, the OIDS was facing a budget crunch last year, even before Governor Keating vetoed $919,155 in indigent defense funding. The veto simply made a bad situation worse, increasing the likelihood that criminal cases will be dismissed without going to trial.
In other words, if the state is unable to provide legal representation in a timely manner to ensure a speedy trial as required by the Constitution, the courts will ultimately be forced to let the accused criminals go.
"We're not going to sit by and let that happen when there is money available to force these guys to go to trial," said Senator Taylor, D-Claremore.
"There's no reason to release accused criminals or give convicted killers a new lease on life, but unfortunately, that's what Governor Keating's veto has done," said Speaker Benson, D-Frederick.
The legislative leaders admit they were surprised by the OIDS veto last year, noting that Governor Keating himself had recommended a funding increase for indigent defense in his executive budget.
"We were under the impression that Governor Keating was up to speed on indigent defense and understood the ramifications if it wasn't properly funded. It was even in his executive budget. That's why the veto was such a surprise," said Speaker Benson.
The legislative leadership led an attempt to override the indigent defense veto before session adjourned last year, but House Republicans blocked the override and sustained the Keating veto.
"Our hands were tied by Governor Keating and the House Republicans last year, but if we move quickly this coming session, we might be able to keep all the criminal cases on track. We just have to convince the Governor and his supporters how crucial this funding is to public safety," said Senator Taylor.
"No one wants a violent felon to slip through the cracks unnecessarily," added Speaker Benson.