OKLAHOMA CITY – A plea deal that sent an ex-convict accused of raping a 4-year-old girl to jail for only a year has prompted outrage across Oklahoma, where lawmakers are calling for the removal of the judge who approved the deal and the attorney general is investigating a new set of abuse allegations.
Under the deal, David Harold Earls, 64, of the southeastern Oklahoma town of McAlester, pleaded no contest last month to first-degree rape and forcible sodomy. Normally, the rape charge carries a sentence of between five years to life in prison, but the deal he struck with prosecutors called for 19 years of his 20-year sentence to be suspended.
Residents have since peppered the local newspaper with e-mails and letters questioning why the sentence wasn't harsher.
"I think they should have dropped the hammer on him," said Chris Lenardo, 35, who works at a local barber shop in McAlester, a town of about 18,000 people about 120 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. "I'm still trying to figure out why he's only getting a year."
Prosecutors said they only agreed to the plea bargain because the case rested largely on the testimony of the girl, now 5, who made contradictory statements during pretrial hearings. After initially testifying about the assault, she later said she couldn't remember the rape. At one point, the girl ran out of the room and down the hallway.
The case has generated more outrage as new accusations have surfaced. After Earls entered his plea, an estranged relative came forward to make a new allegation of a past rape. Although the statute of limitations likely has expired, it's possible the allegations could be used in another case against Earls if another victim comes forward, Attorney General Drew Edmondson said.
Edmondson said his office is looking at reviving a case against Earls involving the girl's brother. Those charges were dropped when the 5-year-old boy changed his story and said he couldn't recall the incident.
Such problems involving testimony from children in criminal cases aren't unusual, said Barbara Bonner, director of the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
"Obviously, the criminal justice system wasn't set up to pit a 4- or 5-year-old child against an adult," Bonner said. "Particularly in cases of young children, they have very high levels of anxiety associated with the abuse. They'll do anything to avoid talking about it."
Several state lawmakers want an investigation into the actions of Pittsburg County District Judge Thomas Bartheld, who signed off on the plea deal. The Oklahoma Legislature doesn't have the power to remove a judge, but lawmakers have introduced a resolution asking that a legal process be started in which a judge can be removed by a special state court.
"My general concern is: Are the courts protecting the children?" said Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow. "You have a convicted felon you're looking at. You've got a (family member) that's come forward and said she was raped by him. You've got the public outcry."
Bartheld did not return a telephone message left Tuesday at his office, but has previously said he followed the law.
Earls previously served nearly 10 years in prison for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and was released in 2006. He was baby-sitting the two children while their mother worked a second job, but Miller said the relationship between Earls and the mother is unclear.
A telephone message left Tuesday with Earls' attorney, Tim Mills, was not returned. He had previously told The Oklahoman newspaper he thought prosecutors didn't want to risk an acquittal.
District Attorney Jim Bob Miller said Tuesday the plea deal was both necessary and accepted with the approval of the girl's family. A medical examination of the girl found evidence of a sexual assault, but no DNA evidence tying Earls to the crime.
"If the little girl freezes on the stand, we literally have nothing," Miller said. "We don't have any doubt that he did this, but the problem was proving it in court."