Judge Not Lest Ye Be Screwed

Emily Dowdy's fate has rested in the hands of an Oklahoma judge chastised for not playing fair.

Evidence that Oklahoma County Judge Susan Caswell favors prosecutors is piling up. Yesterday, citing "significant and disturbing evidence of bias" on the part of Caswell, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new sentencing trial for a man given the death penalty. Her conduct was so prejudicial against the defense that the court also ordered that a new judge replace Caswell. Why's this important down here? Caswell's the very same judge who presided over two trials of Emily Dowdy, a former Dallas resident now serving 40 years in prison for DWI vehicular manslaughter. Dowdy maintains that she was doped with GHB, a date-rape drug. A lengthy appellate brief--now before the OCCA in Dowdy's request for a fourth trial--cites numerous examples of judicial and prosecutorial misconduct in her last trial.

Yesterday's ruling concerns Alfred Brian Mitchell, who was convicted in 1992 for the slaying of a female University of Oklahoma student. Reporter John Greiner writes in The Oklahoman that this will be Mitchell's second re-sentencing trial:

"This time the Court of Criminal Appeals struck down Mitchell's sentence and ordered a new sentencing because of prosecution mistakes involving the death penalty portion of the case, prosecutorial misconduct and errors by Judge Caswell. It said the prosecutor's yelling and pointing at Mitchell as he addressed him directly was highly improper and potentially prejudicial."

And a quote from the opinion reads as follows:

"Perhaps even more disturbing than the behavior of the prosecutor is [Caswell's] repeated refusal to in any way constrain or condemn this behavior. The trial court's stance was, essentially, that the court would allow the State to do as it willed unless defense counsel could produce a case, on the spot, specifically forbidding the challenged action. This is not the proper role for a trial court judge. Trial judges are responsible for protecting and upholding the honor, dignity, and integrity of the proceedings held before them. They are not powerless to control the bad behavior of the parties and attorneys who come before them; nor must they await a specific ruling from an appellate court in order to find a particular behavior improper. The total failure to constrain this prosecutor, combined with the obvious annoyance displayed by the court that defense counsel was 'interrupting the flow' of the State's argument, suggests that the trial judge may have forgotten, at least momentarily, where she was sitting and what she was wearing. (Editor's note: The emphasis were added.)

Despite the horror of Mitchell's crimes, and the fact that this case has already gone on for 15 years, we simply cannot allow Mitchell's current death sentence to stand. Because there is a reasonable probability of a different result in a properly conducted capital sentencing, we find that Mitchell is entitled to receive such a resentencing. Furthermore, because of the substantial evidence of trial court bias contained in the record, we order that a new judge shall be assigned to this case, to preside over any future proceedings."

All criminal defendants are entitled to a trial presided over by a judge who is unbiased. That phrase--"reasonable probability of a different result in a properly conducted capital sentencing"--shows why Caswell's conduct matters, not just to Mitchell but to Emily Dowdy. --Glenna Whitley

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky