September Editorial Winner

Taking on a flawed system

Ted Streuli, The Journal Record

Two pit bull puppies in Sheila Ingram's care injured a neighbor, who complained to Oklahoma City officials. No one disputes that, but the extent of the injury and aggressiveness of the puppies remains a topic of debate. A municipal court judge will get a second chance to sort it out next week.
The more important part of Ingram's story is that she had the fortitude to challenge a flawed systern. And she won.
Ingram received a form that said she should turn up in Oklahoma City Municipal Court at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 30, 2009. There was no mention that the city intended to try her at that time. Tried she was, though, found guilty, and fined $1,000. The puppies were to be euthanized.
Ingram thought that was unfair. She appeared as directed, but was not ready to defend herself in a trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals didn't think it was fair, either. The justices overturned the conviction and sent the matter back to the trial court for another go.
It's a rare resident who will invest the time and money to challenge such a system, especially when a family pet is being held at an animal shelter while the case drags on. It's much easier to just pay the fine.
It's also tough to fight the city when the judge refuses to hear you out, and clearly Ingram wasn't heard. Instead, she was tossed out of the courtroom. We wanted to ask municipal judge Fred Austin about that, but he refused to take our call. We were told he's only willing to talk to attorneys, a pretty haughty position for a jurist trying the lowest- level cases, and perhaps that's another flaw in this particular systern. Not even our state Supreme Court justices have such conversational limitations.
Sometimes the right thing comes in a big, flashy package, such as a death-row inmate being exonerated through DNA after years of legal wrangling. And sometimes it turns up as micro-justice, wrapped up in a middle-age woman who cares more about the fairness of the process than the penalty assessed.
Ingram may be found guilty again, but her willingness to fight over process will push the city to change its notification procedure, which will prevent others from landing in a courtroom patently unprepared for a trial.
Good for you, Sheila Ingram.

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