Evil came to McCook a week ago today with the brutal murder of Kailee Clapp, a 14-year-old 9th grade girl at McCook High School. Arrested the same day and arraigned yesterday on four different felony charges relating to Clapp's death was 18-year-old Stathis Kirkpatrick, originally from Las Cruces, New Mexico, who was unemployed and living in Bartley, Nebraska at the time the crimes were committed.
I was the first one in the small county courtroom at the Red Willow county courthouse yesterday morning, taking my seat at 10:30, a full hour before the arraignment was to begin. The small room quickly filled up and by 11 a.m., the courthouse was closed. Just a couple of minutes after the scheduled start time, the defendant was brought in, surrounded by a phalanx of county and city police officers, and he quietly listened as his rights were recited to him by the judge and the charges were addressed by the prosecutor.
It appears to be an open and shut case and therein lies the rub. As a former police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma and a sociology and criminal justice instructor at McCook Community College for the past 16 years, that's the thing that bothers me. Kirkpatrick is guilty as sin in the minds of most area residents, as well as the media and a whole cadre of Facebook postings. Guilty before few facts are known at all, except for the rumors that always spread like wildfire in an explosive case like this.
In this country, we have a presumption of innocence in our legal system. In other words, every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. That burden lies squarely with the prosecutor who must prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did, in fact, commit the crimes he's charged with. In fact, this presumption of innocence is so strong that the defense is not required to present one witness or one piece of evidence to the contrary.
So far, NO evidence and no testimony have been presented. The police department has issued very little information to the public in order to protect their case against the defendant and that is sound police policy. A preliminary hearing will be held at 9 a.m. on Feb. 11 to determine if the prosecution has enough evidence against the accused to proceed to trial.
The people who attended the arraignment on Thursday were well behaved as is the tradition for folks in this part of the country. Although the judge announced that anyone causing a disruption would be escorted out of the courtroom by law enforcement personnel, there were no disruptions of any kind. But the talk outside the courthouse as the arraignment ended was filled with anger, bitterness, and an absolute conviction that the accused did, in fact, commit the crimes he's charged with.
But it's my hope that we will let the hands of justice do what it has been doing since this country was founded. If enough evidence is presented at the preliminary hearing to bind Kirkpatrick over for trial, then a jury will be seated and Paul Woods, the prosecutor, can then present all of the evidence and testimony he's collected against the defendant. If he IS convicted, then he should certainly receive the maximum penalty allowed by law for this horrendous crime.
But that's for a jury to decide after they've heard all of the evidence and testimony and not the court of public opinion.