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Dire' truth


Ben Fenwick October 5th, 2006

On Tuesday, Sept. 26, Oklahoma County District Judge Ray Elliott asked a pool of more than 400 potential jurors if self-proclaimed "Video Vigilante" Brian Bates had handed them a flyer critical ...

diretruths
erence than had seen the original flyer.

 

Only the day before, prospective jurors, residents of OklahomaCounty, filed into the county building for the week's court docket. Bates was present on the sidewalk, passing out his Wes Watch newsletter critical of Lane. Laid out in a manner similar to national tabloids, the newsletter featured criticism of cases handled by Lane, including the felonies that Bates faces " charges which he claims are politically motivated.

 

Lane claimed the act "tainted" a pool of prospective jurors. He first complained to Elliott, who ruled that the trials could go on but that Lane's prosecutors could question jurors and exclude them from his cases if they were biased. Lane decided to appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Elliott sent home the jury pool for the day. The next day, Lane dropped the appeal.

 

Lane's spokeswoman, Debra Forshee, blamed the action on Bates and Lane's political challenger, David Prater.

 

 "It's not the wisest move on the part of Mr. Bates and Mr. Prater," Forshee said.

 

When contacted by Oklahoma Gazette, Prater said he was surprised by the event and said he had no part in it.

 

"Mr. Bates is not part of my campaign, period," said Prater, a former prosecutor.

 

The action, he said, was a "political stunt" orchestrated by Lane at the expense of OklahomaCounty taxpayers.

 

"The actions he took did nothing more than waste $13,000 in taxpayer money and provide Mr. Bates the notoriety he was clearly seeking," Prater said. "Mr. Lane should have taken Judge Elliott's advice to simply make sure he "¦ (questioned) the jurors on the subject (during voir dire) instead of shutting down the courthouse and submitting a writ to the appellate court, only to change his mind and withdraw it the next day."

 

At the center of the debate is Bates' right to free speech, and the requirement on the jury to "speak the truth."

 

Voir dire

The phrase refers to a common legal action that is used to pick juries in every major criminal case. University of Oklahoma College of Law Dean Andrew Coats, himself a former OklahomaCounty district attorney, said the process of questioning jurors is in place in court specifically for cases such as Lane's.

 

"I have a high regard for Wes Lane," Coats said. "I think he's a fine young man. I understand why he would be concerned about it. But it's doubtful in my mind that he'll be able to obtain any judicial relief."

 

Coats said that a jury had not yet been selected.

 

"I've never known a jury tampering case that came about before the jury was actually impaneled to try the case. I've never known it to happen ever with a jury pool," Coats said.

 

Coats said the voir dire process, in which attorneys for both sides ask specific questions of potential jurors while they are being selected for trial, would likely solve the issue.

 

"If you've got 400 jurors, you can ask them if they've seen the material, and if they have, you can ask if the material would affect their judgment in the case," Coats said. "It (a biased jury) seems a little remote because Wes Lane is not prosecuting these cases himself. His assistants are. That shouldn't tar the assistants in a serious criminal nature. I think it can be sorted out in voir dire."

 

Similarly, public defender Robert Ravitz, who heads the OklahomaCounty public defender's office, said the voir dire process is a good one.

 

"My biggest deal is jurors are smart enough to know this is a meaningless document," Ravitz said. "I agree with Judge Elliott that both sides, the defense and the prosecution, might have to explore what was handed to the jurors and if it will affect the jurors in any way. But I can't believe that any person who is smart enough to vote or get a driver's license would take a document like this seriously."

 

Ravitz noted that attorneys in his own office had a similar issue with Lane. Lane has erected a sign next to the jury room in the county building, touting his accomplishments while in office. One juror, speaking with Gazette on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, described the sign.

 

"It's outside by the elevators, when you turn to go to the jury room," the juror said. "It's got his picture and all these things he's accomplished while he's been in office and all these things he's been a part of, and I'm thinkin', "

 
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