Judge Defends Actions
Thursday, June 21st 2007, 11:33 AM CDT
CHANDLER, Okla. (AP) _ A former judge defended himself publicly for the first time Thursday from criticism he has received for returning an abused 2-year-old girl to her mother shortly before the toddler died of suspected child abuse.
Kelsey Smith-Briggs died of blunt force trauma to the abdomen on Oct. 11, 2005, four months after she returned to her mother's home near Meeker. She had been removed from her mother's care in January of that year because of abuse concerns.
Former Lincoln County Associate District Judge Craig Key spoke on the courthouse lawn, surrounded by media members and about 50 onlookers. Key's news conference came on the same day he announced the release of his book about the case, ``A Deadly Game of Tug of War: The Kelsey Smith-Briggs Story.''
Key said he wrote the book because ``there are so many misconceptions about this case ... that at some point we had to set the record straight.
``I've done everything I can to provide a factual account of what happened.''
Derek Burch, an Oklahoma City attorney for Kelsey's father, Lance Briggs, said he hadn't seen the book but that ``it's very disturbing to me as a lawyer to hear of an associate district judge writing a book based upon a decision that he made that could have resulted in harm to this baby.''
Burch questioned whether such a book could be written without using confidential court documents and testimony, but Key said that the information in his book came from legal sources and interviews done after Kelsey's death. Key said, though, he had not spoken with members of the Briggs family for the book.
Key said the book is available for purchase online but won't be available in bookstores until after the trial of Kelsey's mother, Raye Dawn Smith, which will begin July 9. Smith is charged with child neglect and enabling child abuse in the case.
Her attorney, Steve Huddleston of Oklahoma City, declined to comment on the book, citing a gag order issued by the case's presiding judge. Huddleston did say the timing of the book's publication didn't bother him.
``I don't think it's awkward, in the sense there has been so much put out in the press already in this case,'' Huddleston said. ``I'm getting used to having to deal with things being brought out in the public.''
Smith's former husband, Michael Porter, originally was charged with first-degree murder but accepted an agreement and pleaded guilty this February to one count of enabling child abuse. Porter is serving a 30-year prison term.
Kelsey's case has been widely reported and her death led to an Oklahoma law bearing her name that improved training of court-appointed child advocates and makes judges more accountable for their rulings in child-placement cases.
Oklahoma City attorney Irven Box wrote the foreward for the book, in which he said ``no one in Kelsey's family loved her enough to put aside their mutual hatred, and now the prize they fought tooth and claw for, is forever lost; shame on them all.''
Box said he stands by what he said in the foreward and that he thinks that Key has been unfairly portrayed.
``It's time that some of these facts come out,'' said Box, who described himself as a professional acquaintance of Key, who now practices law and runs a title insurance company in Chandler.
According to a state Department of Human Services report from November 2005, Kelsey had suffered a broken collarbone the previous January, and in subsequent months suffered extensive bruising and two broken legs.
Key ordered Kelsey returned to the care of her mother and stepfather in June 2005, ruling the abuser was unknown. Key, who didn't win re-election last year, said media reports have painted a false picture of the case.
He said misconceptions included reports that the state Department of Human Services had recommended that the child not be returned to her mother. In fact, DHS workers had recommended a phased return of Kelsey to Smith's home, Key said. Key also said anyone involved in the case could have appealed his decision, but no one did.
``The decision I made was in the best interest of the child with the information I was given,'' Key said.
``There are a lot of things I would have done differently but that's in hindsight ... I wish there was some way Kelsey was here today.''
The former judge said that it would be ``inappropriate'' for him to speculate on who actually killed Kelsey.
Key said that he would like to see confidential records from the case made public and said that if that happens, his version of what happened will be proven true.
``It's extremely important that no other judge goes through what I went through,'' he said.
Key said he will not profit from the book, but that proceeds will go toward groups that promote child welfare. He said he'd like to see some of the proceeds used to establish a group consisting of experts in child-abuse cases on which judges could rely when making custody decisions.