Oklahoma Survivors' Act Provides New Mitigation Criminal Defense Strategy

The Oklahoma Survivors' Act provides a new mitigation defense strategy by allowing domestic abuse victims to present evidence of their abuse during sentencing and apply for resentencing if the abuse was a significant factor in their crime. Oklahoma has high rates of domestic violence and incarceration of women. A notable case illustrates the harsh penalties faced by abuse victims. The revised Act, effective August 2024, recognizes domestic violence as a mitigating factor in sentencing and helps address issues in the state's failure-to-protect law, improving the treatment of domestic violence survivors in the justice system.

Domestic Violence in Oklahoma

Oklahoma ranks second in the nation for domestic violence incidents and also for the number of women killed by men. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 40.1% of women and 37.8% of men are victims of intimate partner physical violence, rape, or stalking at some time during their lives. Oklahoma leads the nation with the highest number of domestic violence crimes committed against women. It also incarcerates more women than any country in the world except for one.

Case Study: A Domestic Violence Survivor's Story

For one woman who endured years of abuse from her fiancé, fighting back against her abuser resulted in a criminal conviction and a life sentence. After breaking off their engagement, the woman drove to her tormentor's home to plead with him to agree to end their relationship. The ex-boyfriend responded with violence, and the woman, after being raped and beaten, shot him in self-defense. She was charged with premeditated murder in the first degree. Despite evidence of her abuse, she was convicted and has been denied parole twice, having already served 26 years of her life sentence.

Revision of Oklahoma Survivors' Act Could Help Defendants at Sentencing

Senate Bill 1835 was signed into law by Governor Kevin Stitt in May 2024. The governor vetoed a previous version of the legislation, but legislators revised it to create this version of the Oklahoma Survivors' Act. The new law recognizes how a history of domestic violence and abuse can be a mitigating factor that should be taken into account when judges sentence victims convicted of committing criminal acts.

Defendants must provide proof that the abuse occurred. Proof must be in the form of at least one piece of documentary evidence. The revised version of the law differs from the original version vetoed by the governor in limiting its application to those cases where there is evidence proving a victim fought back against an abuser. The new law takes effect on the last day of August 2024.

Addressing the Failure of Oklahoma's Failure-to-Protect Law

In Oklahoma, a parent or person responsible for the care of a child can be charged with a criminal act for not taking reasonable action to protect the child from abuse or neglect. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, 93 percent of those charged and convicted with failing to protect a child in Oklahoma are women. Women accused of failing to protect their child from abuse may be helped in court by the newly enacted Oklahoma Survivors' Act. It may be difficult for a parent who is the victim of domestic violence to protect a child from abuse by the same offender who is actively abusing them as well. The Oklahoma Survivors' Act will allow a parent who is themselves a victim to bring this fact to the attention of a court and have it taken into consideration during sentencing.

Domestic violence is a crime that usually takes place behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny. It's not until a victim speaks up, is killed, or retaliates against an abuser that a couple's secret life is subjected to public scrutiny. You'd think that years of emotional abuse and physical violence, including rape and assault, would be taken into account when the victim is charged with a crime against her abuser or when police investigate a failure-to-protect complaint. Recent cases in Oklahoma raise questions about how our criminal justice system treats victims of domestic violence.

Oklahoma still has a long way to go in the treatment of victims of domestic violence. At least the Oklahoma Survivors' Act signals a potential beginning point.

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