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Weleetka Suspect Waives Jury Trial, Escapes Death Penalty

07-Jul-2014

On a hot summer day in 2008, 13-year-old Taylor Paschal-Placker and her best friend, 11-year-old Skyla Whitaker were walking home down a country road in the small Oklahoma town of Weleetka. They were only a half-mile from Taylor's home when they were gunned down at random, shot multiple times in the chest and head, their bodies lying close together in a ditch.

The case quickly went cold. There were no witnesses. There was little evidence. Questions swirled around the case: Was it personal? Was it random? Did the girls stumble upon criminal activity and were killed to eliminate witnesses? Were they victims of a sexual assault?

For three years, there were no answers. Then, with the murder of another young women, police got a break and identified a suspect.

In July 2011, 23-year-old Ashley Taylor packed her bags, said goodbye to her family and friends, and set off to Louisiana to get married to her fiance, Kevin Sweat. Her family never heard from her again, and when Sweat returned home several weeks later without Ashley, the family became suspicious. Initially, the man told family and investigators that he and Ashley got into an argument, and that she got out of the car. He said he last saw her walking down the interstate as he drove away.

Later, however, he said that he threw a knife at the young woman and it cut her jugular vein.

Investigators discovered Ashley's charred remains on Sweat's property, and with their discovery, they got an unexpected break in the Weleetka case. Shell casings found near Ashley's body matched those found at the scene of the Weleetka girls' murder.

Sweat became a suspect in the murders, but was not arrested or charged until after he made incriminating statements about the girls' deaths. In one interview, the man called the girls "monsters" and said that he "panicked" as they approached his vehicle, shooting them first with a .40-caliber handgun and next with a .22-caliber handgun. The girls were shot a combined 13 times.

Okfuskee County District Attorney Max Cook said that the deaths of Taylor, Skyla, and Ashley were "especially heinous and cruel," one of the criteria that makes first degree murder a capital offense. Although the prosecutor was seeking the death penalty against Kevin Sweat, the defendant waived his right to a jury trial in order to avoid a death sentence. Now, there will be no jury to determine his fate, but instead, an Okfuskee County District Judge will decide whether Sweat is guilty or innocent. If convicted, Sweat avoids a sentence of death, but faces life in prison without parole.



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