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A real maverick


The term of D.A. David Prater has been marked by tough, and often controversial, decisions.

Clifton Adcock December 19th, 2012

It was a sunny May morning in 2009 and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater had just finished dropping off his daughter at school when his cell phone rang.

David Prater
Credit: Mark Hancock

On the other end was Scott Rowland, Prater’s first assistant district attorney.

Rowland was at the Oklahoma City Police Department’s homicide division; there was a video he wanted Prater to see.

A few days prior, Prater had heard about two people trying to rob a local pharmacy, but that a pharmacist named Jerome Ersland had shot and killed one of the pair.

At first, it sounded like a case of self-defense. When Prater watched surveillance video footage of the incident at the police department, however, he began to suspect things were more complicated.

“I knew something was fishy because they’ve got a TV set up in the homicide office, which they don’t do, and all of these homicide detectives are standing around and there’s a chair [in front of the TV]. They said ‘we need to show you something,’” Prater said.

“I watched that video, you see [Ersland] chase him (one of the robbers) out. And I thought ‘OK, that wasn’t exactly how he said it happened, but OK. Then you see him come back, and I’m thinking ‘OK, he’s going to call the police.’ Well, he walks right past the phone, grabs the gun out [of a drawer] and then walks over and shoot Antwun Parker on the floor.”

Prater said he was stunned.

“It was clear to me we had just watched someone be murdered,” he said. “I looked at the veteran homicide cops and they said, ‘Yeah. What are you going to do?’

"I said, ‘Well, he murdered him. That’s murder.’”
Jerome Ersland
Credit: Mark Hancock

The case, which became national news, would take several more unexpected turns.

But when Prater, who is in his second term, talks about his life, it becomes evident that unexpected turns are what put him where he is today.

Unexpected turns
Around his seventh birthday, Prater began telling his parents that he wanted to be a policeman.

“I don’t know why it took, but it did,” he said.

At age 18, the Norman native began working at the Cleveland County Jail to get his feet wet in law enforcement. The Norman Police Department didn’t accept applicants who were under age 21, but Prater convinced the agency to let him go through the academy at age 20.

“I basically begged them: ‘Give me a chance, you won’t be sorry,’” Prater said.

From 1980 to 1988, he worked the patrol beat — mostly on the graveyard shift — and worked on the pistol team, SWAT team, dive team and as an instructor at the police academy.

“I loved being a cop. I didn’t think I would do anything else,” he said.

Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes knew Prater during that period. Asked if he remembered anything about Prater’s time as a Norman police officer, Clabes referred to a recent incident in which Prater was physically attacked in court by a convicted murderer. The DA fought back, pinning the man to the ground.

“He could certainly apprehend a suspect, I think he’s shown some of those attributes in the courtroom,” Clabes said, laughing.

As a cop, Prater knew he needed a college degree to advance his career. He left the force, enrolled at the University of Oklahoma and received a degree in law enforcement administration.

Credit: Mark Hancock

He wanted to join the U.S. Secret Service, but that agency was in the midst of a three-year hiring freeze. To wait it out, he went to law school in hopes of making himself an even stronger candidate for the post. After interning for the DA’s offices in Cleveland and Oklahoma counties, Prater became a prosecutor for Oklahoma County DA Bob Macy.

“People either loved him or hated him," Prater said of Macy. "He was good to work for. I never had Mr. Macy tell me anything except: ‘Do the right thing. Seek justice, do the right thing.’”

Macy retired in 2001, prompting then-Gov. Frank Keating to appoint Wes Lane to the job. Prater left for private practice, something he had not wanted to do, although he now calls the experience invaluable.

“I learned a lot about people and about the law while I was out those five years in private practice,” he said. “I wouldn’t have learned that being in the prosecutor’s office. I saw the other side of things. I came to the realization that not all people who find themselves charged with criminal acts are bad people. A lot of them just made bad decisions.”

But he knew he had to return to the public sector.

“I thought, ‘Why am I here? This isn’t what was supposed to happen,’” Prater said. “I was supposed to be a prosecutor the rest of my life.”

And so he challenged Lane in the 2006 DA’s race. Political observers expected the incumbent, a longtime Republican activist, to win handily. In a hard-fought and often acrimonious contest, Prater, a Democrat, squeaked to victory by a margin of 824 votes.

The two opponents eventually became friends, according to both men.

“We had a rather big dustup a few years ago, but I have great regard for him,” Lane said. “I think he’s a good man with a good heart. I think he’s the right man in the right job.

“A part of what I consider significant with his job is his willingness to do and say the thing that aren’t earning him friends. ... I think he has taken stands based upon his sincere belief in what is the justice of the matter, and at times has alienated people. If he were a purely political animal, he wouldn’t have taken some of those stands.”

It wouldn’t take long for the challenges of Prater’s new job to become readily apparent.
Tammy Bass-LeSure


Foiled robbery, and murder
On May 19, 2009, two teenagers walked into a Reliable Discount Pharmacy in south Oklahoma City with the intent of robbing it.

Jevontai Ingram brandished a gun as Antwun Parker stood nearby. Ersland, a pharmacist behind the counter, drew his weapon and shot 16-year-old Parker in the head; Ingram, who was 14, fled the scene.

Prater charged Ersland with first-degree murder. The backlash was immediate and furious.

Some hailed Ersland as a hero being persecuted by an overzealous district attorney. Others went further in registering their displeasure — threatening both Prater and his family.

“We knew there would be a lot of criticism,” said Prater. “I don’t think I foresaw the level of criticism and how serious it got.”

In the two years it took Ersland to reach trial, the case took on a bizarre, sideshow life of its own.

The district court judge initially assigned to the case, Tammy Bass-LeSure, had allegedly been doing favors for some of Ersland’s defense team, according to Prater.

The issue came to light after an attorney told the DA that one of his clients, a personal trainer at Bass- LeSure’s gym, told him the judge had offered to take care of a drug case for him.

Prater requested that Bass-LeSure recuse herself from the Ersland case, a move that prompted criticism from the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Bass-LeSure is black).
Irven Box
Credit: Mark Hancock

Bigger troubles would come for Bass-LeSure. She and her husband later pleaded guilty to obtaining public assistance by false representation. An offhand comment had led to an investigation that found the couple accepted money from the state for the adoption of two children actually being cared for by the sister of Bass-LeSure’s bailiff.

In May of last year, a jury convicted Ersland of first-degree murder.

Other controversies
Any relief from that hard-won victory was short-lived.

Shortly thereafter, Prater became the subject of an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) probe that had been requested by the state Attorney General’s office. A grand jury was convened to determine whether a 2006 election victory party for Prater was paid for by an attorney who later received favorable treatment from the new DA. The owner of the restaurant where the party was held backed up the accusation.

“I can’t explain how difficult that period was with the grand jury. I’ve been a law enforcement guy all my life, and now they’re investigating me?” Prater said. “When the grand jury started investigating me, it was personal. I knew we didn’t do anything wrong.”

The grand jury cleared Prater of any wrongdoing, indicted the restaurant owner for falsifying a statement, and identified Irvin Box and Joe Brett Reynolds, Ersland’s defense attorneys, as the source of the complaint in order to gain an advantage in their client’s case.

Prior to Ersland, Box said, he and Prater had enjoyed a good working relationship, but it was now “destroyed.”
Randy Terrill
Credit: Mark Hancock

“In working on that case with the DA’s office, we had some difficulties because we had a big difference of opinion as to what the result should be in the case,” Box said. “There were very strong emotional feelings on both sides in regard to what should occur, much more than most cases.”

In 2010, in the midst of the Ersland case, Prater also launched a probe into corruption allegations involving then-state Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, and former Sen. Debbe Leftwich. D-Oklahoma City. According to charges filed that December, Terrill bribed Leftwich to resign from the Senate and therefore pave the way for another candidate.

The case is still ongoing. Last week, a state appeals court heard arguments as prosecutors attempted to add conspiracy charges against the politicians.

Prater, who declined to comment on specifics, said his office faced an uphill battle in its investigation.

“We had the information brought to us, but it was very sketchy,” Prater said. “There wasn’t anyone we could get to assist us. Our investigators had to do it ourselves basically, because no one else wanted to touch it.”

Prater drew more controversy this past August, when he accused the state Pardon and Parole Board of violating the state Open Meetings Act. The panel had voted on early paroles of some prisoners without providing written public notification that it was doing so. No charges have yet been filed in the case.

Catch the ball
Some of Prater’s initiatives didn’t make headlines but were notable, nevertheless.

Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty said the DA has made it a priority to strengthen lines of communication between police and the district attorney’s office; he sent assistant DAs to the police department to look at cases.
Credit: Mark Hancock

“It’s just the fact that you can pick up the phone and you need to talk to the DA and he’s responsive," Citty said. "It’s not just to me. He’s that way with everybody. I’ve probably never seen a DA work as hard as he does at his job.”

And while there will always be professional differences of opinion, Citty said, he stressed that he is confident in Prater’s ability to make the right decision.

“David has one of the strongest strengths of character: the willingness to do the right thing regardless of public opinion or those types of things, regardless of the politics of the issues.” the chief said. “I’ve never seen anybody want to do the right thing as much as David Prater. You have to appreciate the job he’s doing.”

Oklahoma County’s chief public defender, Bob Ravitz, said his and Prater’s work on the veterans’ court diversion program has made it one of the best programs of its kind in the country.

“Over the last 18 to 20 months, it’s kept more than 100 veterans [out of the criminal justice system],” Ravitz said.

Prater likened his job to that of a wide receiver in football. The quarterback throws the ball and, as the wide receiver runs to catch it, from the corner of his eye he sees a defender about to waylay him.

“You know that hit’s coming, but you know your job is to catch the ball,” he said. “You catch the ball, you take the hit and whatever happens after that happens.”

But Prater said he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

Credit: Mark Hancock

“As long as the good Lord wants me here, that’s where I’ll be,” he said. “If that means I’m defeated in an election or something else happens, that’s not in my hands. I have no plans to do anything except this.

"This is the hardest job I’ve ever done, but I’ve never done anything I’ve loved more.”



 
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