Hot Dog Bun Justice

A long-awaited ruling from the Court of Criminal Appeals in Oklahoma was released last week, crushing the hopes of Nancy and Charlie Jackson that their daughter Emily Dowdy would receive a new trial.

Dowdy was convicted of first-degree manslaughter resulting from a 1999 auto accident that killed Ryan Brewer, the son of an Oklahoma City police officer. The prosecution contended that Dowdy was drunk; the defense argued that the former Dallas resident and student at the University of Oklahoma had been involuntarily drugged with GHB.

The 21-page unpublished opinion sides with the trial court's "findings of fact and law" but never truly addresses the issue of the judge in Dowdy's case, Susan Caswell, acting as a virtual prosecutor in Dowdy's third trial.

The court did reduce Dowdy's sentence of 40 years to 25 years based on evidence that the judges agree should never have been presented to the jury in the first place, the so-called "hot dog bun" photo. (See "Oklahoma Railroad," by Glenna Whitley, July 21, 2005.) Scott Perry, one of Dowdy's former friends, testified that he had seen a newspaper photograph of Dowdy at a football tailgate party holding a beer as she awaited trial for alcohol-related manslaughter. The picture was never introduced as evidence. The only news photo that existed showed her holding a hot dog bun. Jurors took the testimony about the photo as proof that Dowdy had no remorse and slammed her with a 40-year sentence.

The judges agreed that Caswell erred in overruling the defense's objection to the photo testimony and concluded that it had improperly biased the jury's assessment of sentence but not the verdict. So the court knocked 15 years off her sentence. What the justices ignored was that the prosecutors and judge repeatedly manipulated evidence that led to the guilty verdict.

The Jacksons declined to comment on the verdict but said that Dowdy's appellate attorney will file a motion this week to ask for a hearing on a further reduction in her sentence.

The landscape in the Oklahoma City courthouse has changed since Dowdy's last trial. The district attorney and Caswell were defeated in the last election. Is it too much to hope that "hot dog bun justice" is a thing of the past?

 
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