district attorney debate
Democrats Vicki Behenna and Mark Myles participated in NonDoc's Oklahoma County district attorney debate night on Wednesday, June 15, 2022, at the University of Central Oklahoma. (Michael Duncan)

While Vicki Behenna and Mark Myles mostly agreed with each other on fundamental issues during the Democratic portion of Wednesday night’s Oklahoma County district attorney debates, they emphasized differing experiences and approaches they would bring to the job. They also differed in their level of support for the June 28 bond proposal to build a new Oklahoma County Jail, and Behenna candidly revealed that she voted for Myles’ opponent — Republican Mike Hunter — during the state’s 2018 attorney general election.

Answering questions on topics ranging from the use of cash bail and civil asset forfeiture to their philosophies regarding prosecuting public corruption, the two Democrats maintained a cordial and mutually respectful dialogue, in contrast to the Republican district attorney candidates, who debated earlier in the evening.

Behenna — who currently works in private practice “with an emphasis on white collar defense, government relations and health care,” according to the firm’s website — previously worked for 25 years as a federal prosecutor. She is also the executive director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project. During the debate, she emphasized her belief that her range of experience qualifies her for the DA job.

Myles is is an Oklahoma City attorney who ran for attorney general in 2018 and for the U.S. Senate in 2010. He also previously worked as a prosecutor in Logan County. He argued that his focus as a prosecutor would be on pursuing justice and doing things “the right way,” even if that meant not winning every case. He also said that, as a Black man, he would bring valuable perspective and sensitivity to the job. If elected, he said he would be the first Black district attorney in the state of Oklahoma.

The pair will compete in the June 28 Democratic primary election. Incumbent David Prater is forgoing a reelection bid and retiring after 16 years as the county’s top prosecutor. The Democratic nominee will take on the winner of the four-candidate GOP primary in the Nov. 8 general election.

Video of the debate, which was co-hosted by NonDoc and News 9 and streamed online via other media partners, is embedded below.

Behenna yes, Myles undecided on jail bond

Mark Myles speaks during the Democratic portion of NonDoc’s Oklahoma County district attorney debate night Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Michael Duncan)

When the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they will be voting in favor of the June 28 ballot question that would approve $260 million in bonds to construct a new Oklahoma County Jail, Behenna’s hand shot up.

“Have you been to the county jail?” Behenna asked moderators. “I wouldn’t want my friends, my family members to spend one night in that jail.”

Behenna admitted she did not fully “understand” the broader questions surrounding the financing of a new county jail, but she reiterated support for its construction.

“I’m not an economic development lawyer. I don’t understand the financing parts,” Behenna said. “I intend to read up on that a little more, but it’s unquestionable that Oklahoma County needs a new jail.”

Myles kept his hand down, stating that, though he agrees a new jail is needed, he is currently undecided on the particular proposal being presented to voters in less than two weeks. He cited concerns related to costs and financing and other unknowns.

“We actually don’t know how much the jail is going to cost,” Myles said. “I think they want to raise $260 million, but we don’t know how much exactly it’s going to cost. We don’t know how long it’s going to take to build it. We don’t know where it’s going to be.”

Myles called the jail “a horrible place” and said that, if elected, he hopes to alleviate some of the overcrowding issues by supporting lower bond amounts.

“It’s not clean. It’s not sanitary. There’s too many people in it. Obviously, it is overcrowded,” Myles said. “I hope to address part of that problem if I’m elected as district attorney by advocating for bonds that are more reasonable, that are fair, that are obtainable for people.”

Pressed to answer yes or no on the proposed bond vote, Myles added that he has not had time do all the research to “make an informed decision,” but will before Election Day.

Behenna said that while she wishes there were more information regarding the specifics of financing and location, a new jail is needed.

On the topic of cash bail, Behenna and Myles both said they support lowering bond amounts. Behenna said she believes the public defender and district attorney offices should work together to schedule bonds for specific offenses, so that clearer advice can be given to the judge.

“That hasn’t happened in a long time, and it needs to,” Behenna said. “There needs to be a dialogue.”

Myles said he supports getting rid of the bond schedule, adding that the particular facts of each case should be evaluated to determine the bond amount.

“When a person goes to jail, it has the potential to ruin their lives, because they can lose their job, they can miss their rent payment. They can have everything taken away from them, and we need to be cognizant of that as prosecutors when somebody is charged with a crime,” Myles said.

Behenna on voting for Mike Hunter: ‘I’m not going to say I always get it right’

Vicki Behenna speaks during the Democratic portion of NonDoc’s Oklahoma County district attorney debate night Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (Michael Duncan)

In the third round of the debate, Myles was questioned as to whether he could secure enough votes from moderates to win in the general election against the Republican nominee. In 2018, Myles was the de facto Democratic nominee in the attorney general race, but he received only 36 percent of the vote in losing to Mike Hunter. About one month before the general election, more than 20 prominent Democrats announced their endorsement of Hunter over Myles.

“Well, I don’t know that the people who supported my opponent, Mr. Hunter, at that time reflected the will of the people of Oklahoma County, because in Oklahoma County I got [47 percent] of the vote in basically a red-wave state,” Myles said.

Myles noted that one reason the Oklahoma County district attorney’s race is important is that the office investigates corruption cases within the Oklahoma Legislature.

“That’s the reason why the Republicans really want to win this race, because we’ve got kind of an autocratic governor here, who wants to hand-pick the people that are out there around him,” Myles said. “He would rather not have somebody or anybody looking over his shoulder.”

Awkwardly, Behenna admitted that she voted for Hunter during the 2018 attorney general election.

“I think the role of a prosecutor takes experience, understanding what the role of a prosecutor is,” Behenna said. “I didn’t know Mr. Myles at that time, I didn’t know anything about his background and experience. Based upon that, and knowing Mr. Hunter had been in that job and had the experience, I voted for him.”

Hunter resigned in May 2021, purportedly owing to an affair, amid questions about politicization of criminal investigations requested by his office.

“I’m not going to say I always get it right,” Behenna said.

Asked what it would take for a Democrat to win in the general election, Myles noted that Oklahoma County has often elected Democratic DAs in the past, and he said the party has a “better message” to appeal to voters.

“Instead of making Oklahoma the No. 1 state for incarceration, let’s make Oklahoma the No. 1 state for diversion programs,” Myles said. “I think that message alone resonates with a lot of people out there.”

Behenna: ‘I didn’t vote for Trump, if that’s what you want me to say’

In 2008, while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq, Behenna’s son, Michael, shot and killed a naked man during an interrogation regarding a roadside bomb. Michael Behenna, who claimed he acted in self-defense and that the man was trying to take his weapon, was convicted of unpremeditated murder by a military court. He was ultimately pardoned by former President Donald Trump in 2019, following advocacy by his mother and others.

Asked about her son’s pardon and whether it might give Democratic voters pause about her connections to Republican power structures, Behenna said her son’s pardon was due not to personal influence but rather to exculpatory evidence that the prosecution had withheld during the trial.

“I would fight for my son in the situation he was in any day of the week, as I would for anyone else who felt they were wrongfully convicted and there was evidence to prove their innocence,” Behenna said.

Asked about her opinion of the former president, Behenna bristled.

“I didn’t vote for Trump, if that’s what you want me to say. Am I eternally grateful that he pardoned by son? Of course I am,” she said.

Asked about Behenna’s relation to the former president, Myles said he is not concerned.

“As a parent, any parent would fight to the ends of the earth for their child,” Myles said.