By Tim Talley
OKEMAH, Okla. — A man charged in the 2008 shooting deaths of two young Oklahoma girls and the 2011 death of his 23-year-old girlfriend will be tried for the crimes at the same time in January, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Kevin Sweat, 27, was scheduled to face a first-degree murder trial next month in the death of his girlfriend, Ashley Taylor. He will instead be tried in January in Taylor's death as well as the shooting deaths three years earlier of 13-year-old Taylor Placker and 11-year-old Skyla Whitaker, Okfuskee County District Judge Lawrence Parish ruled.
Parish also ruled that the joint trial will be held in Creek County, where he previously said Sweat would face trial in Taylor's death.
Sweat has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Parish joined the cases in agreement with defense attorneys and prosecutors. Sweat's defense attorneys filed a motion to join the cases last month after Parish ruled evidence concerning the girls' deaths could be presented during Sweat's trial in Taylor's death.
"We believe that joinder is required," said defense attorney Gretchen Mosley of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.
The defense motion said that while prosecutors could have referred to the girls' deaths during Sweat's trial for Taylor's death, defense attorneys would have been limited in their ability to defend him against the evidence. The presentation of evidence concerning the girls' shootings in Weleetka essentially would be a "dry run" at prosecuting Sweat for those deaths, defense attorneys said.
"We believe the cases need to be joined so that the evidence will have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt," Mosley said.
Prosecutors suggested a possible connection between the three deaths while questioning witnesses at a January preliminary hearing. They questioned Sweat's mother and her cousin about statements Sweat made about his relationship with Taylor and his desire to break up with her.
Assistant District Attorney Maxey Reilly asked if Sweat had told them Taylor would spread lies about him if he broke off the relationship, including blaming him for the girls' deaths. Sweat's mother, Deborah Sweat, and cousin, James McClellan, said they did not remember Sweat claiming Taylor had threatened to tell authorities he shot the two girls.
At Wednesday's hearing, Reilly said prosecutors did not object to trying the cases simultaneously. But she expressed concern at the amount of time that elapsed between the two cases.
Riley said state law allows joinder of criminal cases that are similar in nature, occurred within the same general area and are close in time. The longest span of time between joined cases in state law previously was just eight months, Riley said.
"That is our main concern," Riley said.
Parish agreed to join the cases only after asking Sweat if he had discussed the legal strategy with his attorneys.
"Yes, I have, and I do agree with it," Sweat said as he stood at the defense table, shackled at the wrists and ankles and wearing a bullet-proof vest.
Following the hearing, Taylor's father, Michael Taylor, said he expected Sweat's trial for his daughter's death to be postponed and was not surprised prosecutors agreed to join Sweat's trials.
"They feel it's going to be beneficial to their case," Michael Taylor said. "We have to defer to their judgment."