The decision of who will oversee the preliminary hearing of two former Lawton police officers charged with a 2021 shooting death is in the hands of the Comanche County Chief District Judge.
A rehearing Thursday morning before Judge Scott D. Meaders was to hear arguments regarding a motion made by Gary James, of Oklahoma City, to disqualify Special District Judge Christine Galbraith from presiding over the preliminary hearing for Nathan Michael Ronan and Robert Leslie Hinkle.
James represents the former Lawton police officers charged with felony first-degree manslaughter for the Dec. 5, 2021, shooting death of Quadry Sanders, 29, during an incident at 1806 NW Lincoln.
Galbraith declined to disqualify herself from presiding over the preliminary hearing during an April 21 hearing over the matter. The former officers’ preliminary hearing had been scheduled for that day before James filed his motion to disqualify on April 14.
James followed the path of arguments he’d made during that hearing. He alleged not that Galbraith was biased or prejudicial due to her prior role as an assistant district attorney, but that the “appearance of impropriety” was enough to cause the public to lack confidence in any ruling she makes.
James argued that Galbraith was privy to a level of information relating to the case that “rises to the level of the appearance of impropriety under the due process clause.”
Charges were filed against the former police officers by District Attorney Kyle Cabelka in May 2022. At that time, Galbraith was a prosecutor in Cabelka’s office. When he apprised his team of the impending charges, which included showing police body camera video of the incident, James argued, she was allowed to see evidence from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) investigation that precluded Cabelka’s decision.
In turn, Cabelka argued the video he showed was essentially the same video released by the City of Lawton on Jan. 7, 2022, when the officers were terminated from their positions. The video remains available online. He likened it to public information found in a probable cause affidavit filed in court.
“Just because she’s seen it in the office is, essentially, the same as if she went on YouTube and saw it,” he said. “There is no appearance of impropriety in her watching the video.”
James argued in his original motion for Galbraith’s recusal that two prior scheduled preliminary hearings were continued by agreement. At that time, Judge Grant Sheperd was a special district judge overseeing the case, but in January he was appointed to a district judge post and Galbraith assumed his judgeship on Jan. 9.
“The most important thing is the respect of this court by the public,” James said.
The question of Galbraith being recused from overseeing the case could have far reaching consequences, according to Cabelka. A recusal decision could impact all cases before Galbraith filed before January, he argued.
“Think of the precedent set today if that’s the basis she has to recuse,” he said.
The district attorney continued with more questions for Meaders to consider.
”Why is this case different than any other case that was filed?” he said. “If you come from a DA’s office, can you not preside over another case again?”
Recognizing that, no matter Meaders’ decision, Cabelka said he was curious to hear from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals what decision it will make upon the inevitable appeal of a decision, no matter the outcome. He asked the judge to deny the motion.
“There’s always going to be criticisms of the process,” he said, “but where does it end?”
Requests for the hearing’s transcripts for pending appeals were entered into the record.
Meaders addressed the court regarding the particulars of the Code of Judicial Conduct. He said elements regarding personal knowledge of facts are “not quantified.” Participation as a lawyer in the district attorney’s office is not simply a disqualifier, either, he said.
The hearing closed with Meaders promising the be swift with his judgment.
“I hope to have an order out to you very soon,” he said. “I expect to have a decision within a week.”