Updated at: 03/28/2013 3:39 PM
By TIM TALLEY
(AP) OKEMAH, Okla. - A judge entered a not guilty plea Thursday on behalf of a man accused of gunning down two girls in rural Oklahoma.
District Court Judge Lawrence Parish entered the plea on behalf of Kevin Sweat, 27, who faces two counts of first-degree murder in the June 2008 shooting deaths of 13-year-old Taylor Placker and 11-year-old Skyla Whitaker. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Members of the victims’ families were present Thursday when Sweat, who wore a bulletproof vest over his orange jail-issued jumpsuit and was shackled by his wrists and ankles, was formally arraigned on the charges. No trial date was set.
At a hearing in January, prosecutors played a recorded video statement in which Sweat told an investigator he shot what he said were "the demons" who approached him along an unpaved road less than a half-mile from Placker’s home near Weleetka.
"I see demons, vampires ... monsters, demons, whatever. I do have some problems," Sweat told Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent Kurt Titsworth in the video. "I was scared. ... They were still coming at me, so I shot them."
Sweat was already in custody in connection with the July 2011 death of his girlfriend, 23-year-old Ashley Taylor, when he was charged with the girls’ deaths. He pleaded not guilty to a first-degree murder charge in Taylor’s death in August 2012. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in that case as well.
Attorneys indicated Thursday that evidence in the two cases are intertwined.
"We’re headed toward doing two cases at once," defense attorney Wayne Woodyard of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System told Parish during Thursday’s hearing.
Defense attorneys have asked Parish to relocate Sweat’s June 10 trial in Taylor’s death because of the amount of media coverage the cases have received in Okfuskee County. Parish is expected to rule on the motion in two or three weeks.
"It’s going to be difficult to find jurors who don’t know anything about this case," Woodyard said.
Another of Sweat’s attorneys, Peter Astor, told reporters that the deaths of the two girls had a strong impact on area residents, who may have developed a bias against Sweat.
"In a way they’re going to be tried together," Astor said. "There can’t be any doubt that the Weleetka case has received widespread media coverage from the beginning."
Following the hearing, Taylor’s father, Michael Taylor, said moving the trial will be inconvenient but he is willing to travel to whatever venue is chosen.
"If I have to go halfway across the country, I’ll go halfway across the country," he said.
Sweat was ordered to stand trial for Taylor’s death in May 2012 following a preliminary hearing where investigators testified they recovered "severely fragmented" human bones from the remains of a pile of burned debris next to Sweat’s father’s home. The bones were consistent with Taylor’s although not an exact match.
Sweat told investigators different stories about what had happened to Taylor before claiming that he had fatally stabbed her in the neck in an area park and pushed her body into the lake. But investigators said they found no blood on the pier and did not find her body.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)