Criminal Law Overhaul Nixed on Moral Issues

Article excerpt

Journal Record Staff Reporter

The words "abortion, sodomy and bestiality," plus the fear by some that cock fighting would be outlawed in Oklahoma, apparently aroused sufficient emotion to kill a massive bill in the state Legislature that would have revamped the criminal laws.

Rep. Bill Settle, D-Muskogee, said Tuesday he would not bring Senate Bill 404 up in the House of Representatives because the votes weren't there to pass it.

"Quite a few members were unhappy over the fact that it would make cock fighting illegal," he said. Cock fighting currently is permitted in Oklahoma law _ gambling on it is forbidden, however, according to Settle.

But possible loss of the right to pit roosters against each other was not the only thing that defeated Senate Bill 404, authored in the Senate by Majority Floor Leader Darryl Roberts, D-Ardmore.

Church groups mobilized over emotional moral issues. "I know a lot of them were concerned about the repeal of some 1961 abortion statutes," Settle said. One made it illegal to aid in, or procure, an abortion, and the other made it illegal to submit to an abortion.

Ironically, those two statutes have been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, Settle said.

"Although the statutes can't be used, some people wanted them left in there because they think it declares the policy of the state," he said. "Even if Roe v. Wade was repealed, we would need a new statute."

Further, some opponents were upset that the bill would have made sodomy between consenting adults legal. "If it was done in public, you could charge them with indecent exposure," Settle noted. The state Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled that consensual sodomy is legal, he said.

Then there was the matter of bestiality, which was "inadvertently" left out of the bill altogether. That added to the moral outrage.

What seems to irk Settle and Roberts the most, though, is that all 1,218 pages of Senate Bill 404 have been available for review by legislators for more than a year. Yet, some have complained about insufficient time to look at the measure prior to being asked to vote on it.

In fact, activity that led to Senate Bill 404 started about four years ago, with appointment of a task force which included an Oklahoma Supreme Court justice, district judges and district attorneys from all over the state. Some "99.9 percent of the substantive law in 404 was written by that committee," Roberts said.

"One problem that these task forces and blue ribbon commissions have _ (although) I welcomed their help in rewriting the code _ they did it without regard to political considerations," Roberts said. "I think that was its Achilles' heel. I think that's why we've never had recodification since 1907.

"It is a patchwork quilt system," he said.

Criminal actions currently are spread from Title 2 to Title 85 of the statutes. Senate Bill 404 would have placed them all under Title 21, which pertains to crimes and punishments, Settle said. The change would have made it "easier to use the statutes, easier for district attorneys to prosecute and easier to obtain convictions in those areas that would become administrative fines or civil infractions," he said.

In those cases, the burden of proof would have been a preponderance of evidence rather than reasonable doubt. Civil cases also would not have required court-appointed lawyers, Settle said. …