Woods County judge accepts guilty plea in his chambers, not in packed courtroom

A Woods County judge refused to explain why a guilty plea in a first-degree murder case was accepted in his chambers Wednesday instead of in the courtroom packed with family and friends of the victim, The Enid News and Eagle reported Thursday.

“Wherever I am is open court,” Judge Ray Dean Linder told the newspaper. “The attorneys for both sides and the defendant all agreed to do it in chambers. It became an auxiliary courtroom."

To say that his chambers had become an open court is an insult to the family and friends of the victim and to the general public.

If his chambers had become an open court, why didn’t he conduct the proceeding in the Alva courtroom described as standing room only?

How would the public have known that his chambers had become an open court? Did he or a bailiff announce that to those in the courtroom?

What would have happened if all the people in the courtroom had wanted to attend the proceeding taking place in his chambers? How many people could have fit into that room?

The courtroom doesn’t belong to the prosecutor, defendant or even a judge who's served on the bench since 1967. It belongs to the public — those folks who were sitting in the courtroom wondering what was going on when the judge was supposed to be hearing some 40 motions in the case.

That more than 60 people would attend just to observe motions being heard demonstrates how important this case was to the community. (KOCO reported that more than 85 people showed up at the courthouse to support the victim's family.)

Witnessing first-hand that justice is served has a significant therapeutic effect on communities. (See
Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 570-71 (1980))

But on Wednesday, the victim's family and friends were left with asking questions of District Attorney Hollis Thorp and Assistant District Attorney Westline Ritter after the guilty plea was announced.

“I know it was disappointing to the victim’s family,” Ritter said. “The state ordered transcripts so the family could read the guilty plea. There was so much support for (murder victim) Nathan Lyon there. He was a football player at Waynoka. They even had football players from other schools there to support him. His sister, Korbi, wore his football jersey from when he was chosen to be on the eight-man all-star team.”

If it were only a matter of knowing the outcome of a proceeding or trial, then our judicial system would operate behind closed doors. But it doesn’t.

Linder, 75, is one of the longest-sitting trial judges in the state, having served on the bench for 43 years, according to the
Oklahoma Bar Association.

He's running unopposed for his seat in the November general election.

Linder's undoubtably popular in the area, having served as the radio play-by-play man for Northwestern Oklahoma State University sports for 28 years, hosted a local TV sports program from NWOSU, and as a member of NWOSU’s Sports Hall of Fame, sought-after public speaker and an admired jewelry maker.

He's an award-winning judge described by the OBA as a leader in northwestern Oklahoma and the state's judiciary.

But Woods County residents should be questioning his decision to accept a guilty plea to first-degree murder in his private chambers rather than in their courtroom.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media and Strategic Communication
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.