The death penalty is the ultimate expression of the state’s authority, and The Frontier has a long history of covering executions in Oklahoma.
One of the first stories The Frontier covered after our founding in 2015 was the state’s multiple attempts to execute Richard Glossip. Glossip, convicted of paying a co-conspirator to kill Barry Van Treese, ultimately received four stays of execution. He’s still alive on death row, because of a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the state’s execution protocol and Oklahoma’s six-year moratorium on executions that ended in October.
We interviewed that co-conspirator, Justin Sneed, as well, amid interest in Glossip’s case and his proclamations of innocence.
The Frontier even sued then-Gov. Mary Fallin for records related to troubled executions the state conducted in 2014 and 2015. We eventually won, and received tens of thousands of documents from Fallin that showed the chaotic environment that surrounded those executions.
I take the responsibility of covering the death penalty seriously.
During Oklahoma’s six-year moratorium, I examined every death row case to see which ones would draw the most attention when executions resumed. Julius Jones stood out — a case of a black teenager convicted and sentenced to death based on the testimony of a co-defendant. Jones has maintained his innocence for more than two decades. Over the last few years I’ve spoken to Jones’ attorneys dozens — perhaps hundreds — of times. I’ve talked to his family, his supporters and his friends.
Most of those conversations didn’t immediately turn into a story. The Frontier’s mission is to provide in-depth reporting and many times that means simply talking to sources, learning, then sitting back and ruminating. Over time those interviews, and the relationships they helped build, led to dozens of stories about Jones’ case.
When Jones was set to be executed last month, hundreds of protestors showed up outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. I was there, along with F rontier reporters Kassie McClung and Clifton Adcock, to listen to their stories and feelings about the death penalty.
But Oklahoma also has a long history of support for executions. In 2016 voters overwhelmingly voted to codify the death penalty in the state’s constitution, and that viewpoint is important to point out in these stories as well. And, in Jones’ case, it’s important to remember the victim – Paul Howell – a loving parent who was gunned down in front of his family simply because the assailants wanted his vehicle.
I sought out the Howell’s dozens of times in the last few years, but was always rebuffed, something that isn’t a rarity when you ask victims to relive the worst trauma of their lives. Nevertheless, I looked for ways to be fair to them, to tell their story without directly interviewing them.
All this to say that covering the death penalty is an important responsibility, and it’s something I strive to do fairly. Oklahoma has a handful of executions scheduled leading into the trial next month over the state’s lethal injection protocol, and it’s not lost on me that our donors have made my coverage of this important, and often ugly, topic possible.