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Appeals Court Rejects Weleetka Killer's Withdrawal of Guilty Plea

04-Sep-2015

Last summer, three years after the random killings of two little girls in Weleetka, Oklahoma, Kevin Sweat pleaded guilty to the 2008 murders of Taylor Placker and Skyla Whitaker, and to the 2011 murder of his fiance, Ashley Taylor. In return for his blind guilty plea, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty. At sentencing in October, Sweat attempted to withdraw his guilty plea. The court appointed him new counsel to represent him in his withdrawal, but the court rejected his petition to withdraw the plea. Sweat was given three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole--one life sentence for each of the girls he was convicted of killing.

Sweat then appealed the district court's decision to deny the withdrawal of his guilty plea. The petitioner claimed that "his pleas of guilty were not voluntarily and intelligently entered" and that "he did not understand the material consequences of his plea."  His appeal also claimed ineffective assistance of counsel, arguing that the defense attorney failed to enter evidence of mitigating factors at his sentencing.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, in its 33-page decision, rejected both claims by the petitioner and upheld the lower court's refusal to allow the defendant to withdraw his negotiated guilty plea.

In determining whether or not his guilty pleas were voluntarily and intelligently entered, the court looked back at multiple confessions by the defendant and his frequent admissions in court that his attorneys had explained the consequences of a guilty plea and had not coerced or intimidated him into entering the pleas:

"The record establishes that Petitioner understood he would not be asserting his innocence at sentencing. At the plea hearing, Petitioner affirmed that he had confessed to Agent Titsworth that he had killed Placker, Whitaker, and Taylor. He, unequivocally, testified at the withdraw hearing that he had given up his right to trial knowing that the entry of his pleas would result in the judge sentencing him to prison for either life or life without parole. There was no question as to this circumstance."

The Court likewise rejected Sweat's claim of ineffective counsel. Sweat claims that his defense team did not enter mitigating evidence at the sentencing hearing, but in his appeal, he did not specify what evidence should have been admitted but was withheld. The Court speculates that it may have been a psychologist's testimony, but maintains it cannot speculate on the evidence that the petitioner failed to identify. 

In its ruling, the appeals court found that Sweat "made the decision not to present this evidence after consulting with counsel," and said that the attorney's decision not to present the evidence was strategic.  The court denied his proposition that he was denied effective counsel.

Finally, Sweat argued that his sentence was excessive (despite life and life without parole being the statutory punishments for first degree murder under Oklahoma law). However, the Court noted, "Petitioner concedes that he waived appellate review of this issue when he failed to raise it in his motion to withdraw his pleas." Therefore, the court declined to review the merits of the claim. The Court further asserted that because his sentences were within the statutory range, Sweat could not possibly demonstrate that his "sentences were so excessive as to shock the conscience of the court."

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals denied certiorari on all propositions. 



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