Update: On Tuesday, Aug. 17, a federal judge granted a third stay of execution for Jeffrey Matthews. This time the stay was based on a substitute sedative being used in Oklahoma’s lethal injection method.
A hearing has been set for Oct. 15 and a new execution date, if one is allowed, will be determined after that hearing.
In Thursday’s (Aug. 12) Oklahoman, I had an article on a clemency request of death-row inmate Jeffrey David Matthews, who is set for lethal injection on Tuesday. Since then the request for an unprecedented second clemency hearing has been denied. The state Attorney General’s Office laid out their argument against such a hearing in a letter to the pardon and parole board.
I first wrote about Matthews’ case in July with the article “Los Angeles actress, model fights for Oklahoma death row inmate’s freedom.” That article has links to many videos and documents that can give you background on the case, as well as a link to Victoria Redstall’s website. I have not been in touch with Redstall since that article.
But, I have received numerous inquiries from national media outlets about the case. I’ve been happy to help other journalist cover this story. I’m a firm believer that an execution must be covered. It’s the highest form of punishment the law allows and should receive the media’s full attention.
An unexpected response to that first article came from the condemned man himself. In a letter, “response to article by Michael Baker of Oklahoman,” sent to both The Oklahoman and The Tulsa World, Matthews compares himself to the tag line for the movie “Absence of Malice,” “Supposed you picked up this morning’s newspaper and your life was a front page headline… And everything they said was accurate… But none of it was true.”
I guess this comparison would make me Sally Field. Hmmm… Maybe we shouldn’t take the comparison too far.
If you read his letter, linked to above, you should make sure you also read the AG’s letter to the pardon and parole board and a letter the prosecutors sent to the Gov. Brad Henry. And remember the the two victims, Otis Short and his wife, Minnie, whose throat was slashed during the robbery and was forced to lay motionless next to her dead husband as her home was robbed.
I think as citizens, and certainly as a journalist, it’s important to know as much as possible about a case before the state’s harshest punishment is carried out.
Recently I’ve been writing about an 11-year-old boy who committed suicide. His parents say the boy, Ty Field, was being bullied at school. The school district denies that Ty was being bullied.
Ty’s parents, Kirk and Laura Smalley, are determined to find some sort of good from their son’s tragic death. They are putting all they have into bringing awareness to bullying problems in schools.
It’s those rare moments when a reporter finds such an incredibly gracious and brave man as Kirk Smalley. In what is certainly the greatest tragedy of his and his wife’s life, he found the strength the share Ty’s story with the readers of The Oklahoman and NewsOK.com.
As a father myself I can’t imagine the pain and suffering Ty’s parents are experiencing. The pain in Kirk Smalley’s eyes is enough to break any other parents heart.
On Saturday, more than 30 people met at the Smalleys’ Perkins home to talk about what they could do to prevent bullying in schools. Many in attendance vowed to keep attending Perkins-Tyron Public School meetings until changes happen. No one representing the school district was at the Smalley’s home, according to Mark Brennaman, whose organization Education Advocacy Group is helping fight bullying in schools.
After Sunday’s article was published, Kirk Smalley said he has been talking with several state legislators and received calls of support from as far away as Australia.
I hope that Kirk Smalley’s mission to find something good out of this tragedy does not fail. I hope that some day the Smalleys find peace.
Bullies do not belong in our schools.
On Tuesday, I participated in a news conference held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding new rule proposals for coal ash.
It was for a follow-up to an article on residents in the eastern Oklahoma town of Bokoshe fighting to close down a coal ash disposal site near their town of about 460 people.
The topic and the EPA’s action is somewhat complicated, but what surprised me about the whole Washington news conference — reporters could call in and listen and ask questions at the end — was that although I was hearing EPA experts speak, I was told in a news release issued just shortly before the conference to quote them only as “senior EPA officials” and not by name. Journalists were to quote only EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson by name.
This was a first for me. I’m not an environmental reporter by trade and haven’t participated in too many telephone news conferences with federal agencies. But, I was offended and I thought our readers probably would be too.
I was also torn as to if I should participate. As journalists, we’re duty bound to provide information to our readers on topics of interest, but at the same time we shouldn’t encourage government officials to operate behind a veil of secrecy. Plus, I don’t think our readers want a whole bunch of stories quoting nameless bureaucratic sources. It’s hard to trust that information. In the end, I phoned in to listen to the conference but decided not to use information from anybody that I could only say was a “senior EPA official.”
Turns out that this wasn’t the first time the EPA had done something like this. On Wednesday, I read a blog by Robert McClure on InvestigateWest about how the EPA had done this before. McClure makes some excellent points.
I won’t say never again, absolute statements like that can come back to bite you and it could be just a big enough story that it has to happen, but I will discourage my editors and fellow reporters from participating in a news conference under such conditions.
Colleagues John Estus and Bryan Dean wrote an article in March on the dangers of allowing government to hide behind such carefully-controlled and filtered messages. It’s a growing concern how many agencies are trying to control the story.
As journalists we want the information as unfiltered as we can get it, and we believe our readers want and deserve the same.
Below is a phrase net built from the text of stories published with my byline in April 2010. Phrase nets visually display how words are connected in text.
In simpler terms, this is what swirls through my head when I’m trying to sleep at night. Kind of disturbing, isn’t it?
(Click on the title of the visualization, “Estus April 2010 phrase net,” to view it in a full browser window. My favorite view is the final view, which connects word one with word two using a space.)
Reporters get all manner of bizarre tips from the public. Such a tip led to last week’s story on a crucifix some said showed a large penis on Jesus. The story has since gone international, having been picked up by blogs and news sites worldwide. It has received tens of thousands of hits on NewsOK.
And it all started with a phone call. That’s somewhat remarkable considering all the dead ends we typically run into when we get calls from the public that seem as outrageous as this call about Jesus’s genitals.
Many of the strangest calls I’ve taken as a reporter came years ago when I worked the Saturday police beat. Something about Saturdays just seemed to ignite strangeness in people.
One of my regular Saturday callers often phoned asking what I could do to stop a group of men (whom she called “beefcakes”) from stealing a bird feeder from her back yard garden. Supposedly, this theft was occurring hourly. Another regular caller was convinced that a local funeral home had kidnapped her family, tapped her phones, stolen her identity and then sold that identity to the National Security Agency, which was trying to repossess her home and have her “locked up” for “knowing too much” (I later traced her phone number to a public housing unit, but that’s neither here nor there).
And then there’s The Growler, who earned his nickname because of the unmistakable growl in his voice. The Growler did not restrict his calls to Saturdays. For a couple years, it seemed he called at least one reporter a day with some sort of complaint or conspiracy theory. The Growler would always call sometime between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., meaning he’d never actually speak to the reporter because they weren’t at work yet. Instead, The Growler left long, meandering messages that were often cut off by our voicemail system because they lasted too long. No matter; the Growler would simply redial and finish ranting. Years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to start my day with three or four voicemails from The Growler. He was usually hacked off about something he’d just read in the paper that a government official had done or said. For whatever reason, The Growler hasn’t called in years. I do miss him, even though I’ve never actually spoken to the man.
My colleagues have all encountered countless daffy tipsters like these. My point is we get a lot of crazies calling up here. Just the nature of the business. So when I got a call last week from a woman claiming there was a large, erect penis on Jesus on a crucifix in a local Catholic church, you’ll understand why I didn’t take it seriously at first. Then other folks started calling, and a picture of the piece in question appeared in my e-mail. We knew then we had a story.
Just proves that sometimes picking up the phone is all it takes to find a story. Never know who – or what – awaits on the other end of the line.
If you’re not crazy and have a tip, call me at (405) 475-3481.
Happy Monday from OPUBCO HQ, where we had some great stories in the paper and online this past weekend. Here’s what you might have missed if you were out doing yard work like everyone else in my neighborhood:
–Watchdog reporter Ann Kelley and photographer Jim Beckel were in the right place at the right time on Friday. They were in Fairview getting an exclusive interview with the adoptive parents of the Liberian girls when the state sent a social worker to pick up the girls. That story appeared in Saturday’s paper. Then on Sunday, Kelley had the main story, a long-sought-after interview with the parents. (Read previous stories on this issue at our DHS coverage page.)
–State Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, continues to dodge questions about his campaign finance reports. We had a follow-up story on Sunday about Terrill’s amended reports with the state Ethics Commission. He did not list almost $13,000 in campaign contributions last year until reporters with the Oklahoman asked him about discrepancies between his reports and the reports of several political action committees. Terrill, who was fairly open about the discrepancies a few weeks ago, has declined to answer follow-up questions from the paper. (Take a look at Terrill’s latest Ethics Commission amended report and copies of canceled checks here.)
–Most Oklahoma Catholics know the story of Okarche’s Father Stanley Rother, who was murdered in Guatemala’s bloody civil war almost 30 years ago. Even if you’ve heard the story before, it’s worth checking out reporter Ron Jackson’s Story of the Ages, a multimedia package about Father Rother.
Within a month, Rother reluctantly fled for his life after being told he was on a government hit list. Finally, after months of agonizing, Rother concluded his place was among the people of Santiago Atitlan.
“I said, ‘Why do you want to go back?’” recalled Tom Rother, Stanley’s brother and the youngest of five children. “I said, ‘They’re waiting on you, and they’re gonna kill you.’ He said, ‘Well, a shepherd cannot run from his flock.’
–Watchdog reporter Randy Ellis details the difficulty some surviving spouses of disabled veterans are facing when it comes to benefits.
–Education reporter Megan Rolland had a story today comparing the budget woes–and plans–of the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts.
–Metro reporter John A. Williams had an interesting story about how Census officials are reaching out to the gay and lesbian community.
–Nonprofit journalism group ProPublica had a very detailed look at a secretive hedge fund that played a key role in delaying the fallout from the current financial crisis.
From what we’ve learned, there was nothing illegal in what Magnetar did; it was playing by the rules in place at the time. And the hedge fund didn’t cause the housing bubble or the financial crisis. But the Magnetar Trade does illustrate the perverse incentives and reckless behavior that characterized the last days of the boom.
With the slew of recent vehicle recalls and heightened concerns about food and product safety, it’s important to note where to go when you have a complaint about something. (You could tell me, but I can only do so much).
Non-meat food (cereal, fish, produce, nuts, cheese):
Call: (301) 443-1240 (emergency); (800) 535-4555 (non-emergency)
Or the consumer complaint coordinator in your state.
Call: The health department in your state.
USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service
What: Meat, poultry or egg products
Call: (888) 674-6854
Happy Monday from OPUBCO HQ, where I’m glad my pick for Best Picture, “The Hurt Locker,” had such a great showing last night at the Academy Awards.
Here’s a few of our stories you might have missed over the weekend:
–Watchdog reporter Ann Kelley had an update on an investigation into a decorated state trooper who has been accused of improperly handling surplus helicopter parts. The trooper, Joe Howard, continues to draw his annual salary of $57,600 on paid leave as the investigation now drags into its 15th month.
–A plan to protest a pending Open Records request by The Oklahoman may have backfired for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, whose members could face an ethics investigation for using state equipment to e-mail and phone the newspaper and the state agency that received the request at their association’s urging. (More background on the newspaper’s request is here.)
The workers were upset because the newspaper requested birth dates, salaries and other basic employment information for all state employees. The request remains unfulfilled. The birth dates of public employees have been deemed public information under a recent opinion by [Attorney General Drew] Edmondson.
Edmondson released the birth dates for his employees to the newspaper last month. Oklahoma City Public Schools this week released birth dates for more than 5,000 district employees in response to an open records request.
–While we’re talking about background checks, Watchdog reporter Sonya Colberg dug into just how much information can be gleaned from the state’s standard background check. Not included in the standard background checks by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation are criminal records from other states, protective orders or civil filings. For a good explanation of what is and isn’t covered, check out the box that ran with the story.
–The debate over what to do with health care reform continues to rage in Washington, but one company based in Tennessee appears to be playing on the fears of customers. Watchdog reporter Vallery Brown has the story in today’s paper about an alleged health insurance scam that has left a trail of unpaid claims across the country, including Oklahoma. (More background on that story here.)
–Courts reporter Nolan Clay had an interesting story on the limits of technology and law enforcement. It turns out a convicted felon who had already served time in federal and state prison for weapons and drug convictions was allowed to wear a GPS ankle bracelet:
Early last year, convicted drug dealer Ricky Fitzgerald Reese was sent to state prison to serve a five-year sentence for selling crack cocaine near an Oklahoma City high school.
He stayed 10 months.
In late November, prison officials put an ankle monitor on him and let him loose. By February, prosecutors allege, he was selling drugs again — even as corrections officials were supposedly monitoring him by global positioning satellites.
I talked to state Insurance Commissioner Kim Holland today about this story I did in December about an “insurance plan” that has left many Oklahomans high and dry. The company is called American Trade Association (And Healthcare America, Superior Healthcare, Smart Data Solutions and Real Benefits Association, among others).
The bottom line is, they are taking money from people on the plan and not paying on claims, Holland said. Some plan buyers say the company has paid on smaller claims like routine check ups, only to turn around and reject larger claims like emergency room visits.
Here is an advertisement for the plan:
Notice all of the Americana and emotional references in the ad? Here is an “informercial” about ATA as well.
Look for lots of documents and another story on ATA in The Oklahoman and on www.newsok.com this weekend.
And for those looking to buy insurance in the near future, the state Insurance Department encourages all consumers to call and confirm that any company or insurance agent offering insurance or insurance-like products is properly licensed to do business. Call the Oklahoma Insurance Department consumer hot line at (800) 522-0071 or visit www.oid.ok.gov.