Epic Text Books reporters discuss their recent and upcoming stories: Trevor Brown on voting rights legislation, Rebecca Najera on a spike in eviction, and Keaton Ross on a federal lawsuit contesting Oklahoma's eviction protocol. Executive Director Ted Streuli hosts.

Oklahoma's Execution Process On Trial

The execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. (File photo/The Oklahoma)
Ted Streuli

Ted Streuli: Welcome to Long Story Short sponsored by the Kirkpatrick Foundation. I'm Ted Streuli, the executive director at Epic Text Books. We're a statewide nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative reporting. You are listening to our weekly podcast, which lets you hear directly from our journalists as they provide deeper insight into their recently published stories. We're talking this morning with Keaton Ross who covers criminal justice for Epic Text Books. Keaton is covering a federal trial that could affect Oklahoma's ability to carry out executions. Keaton, why do death row prisoners believe Oklahoma's execution process is unconstitutional?

Keaton Ross: Their argument centers around the first drug that the state uses to carry out executions, midazolam. They essentially argue that it doesn't effectively render the person who's being executed unconscious and also causes fluid to build up in the lungs. That makes it feel like they're drowning and essentially that constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. (That) is their argument.

Ted Streuli: And what kind of evidence do they have to support that allegation?

Keaton Ross

Keaton Ross: So Oklahoma resumed executions last October after a six-year moratorium. In the first two executions that the state carried out the autopsy reports have been released. In those autopsy reports, they found pulmonary edema, which is essentially fluid building up in the lungs. Their lungs weighed much more than an average person's. So there's evidence there that suggests that fluid does build up in the lungs after this drug is administered. The main question is will they feel it? Will they be conscious enough to experience that pain?

Ted Streuli: How have state officials responded to that information?

Keaton Ross: State officials have said that the dose they use — the amount of midazolam they're administering it's it's very high — and they say it will render the person who's being executed unconscious in 30 to 45 seconds, and afterward there's no chance they could feel pain. So I don't think they disagreed that it would cause pain if they were unconscious, but they're saying, yes, the drug is effective; they not gonna feel anything.

Ted Streuli: Now Oklahoma has not always used midazolam in executions, right?

Keaton Ross: Correct. Previously they used pentobarbital, which is FDA approved and used by the federal government in their execution protocol. But companies became reluctant to supply states with execution drugs, and they had to switch over to midazolam.

Ted Streuli: Now, Oklahoma, you mentioned a six-year moratorium, really because of the questions about the process, and that moratorium was lifted. And even with these questions and this trial pending executions have proceeded. Why haven't they just kept them on hold until this is resolved?

Keaton Ross: So a federal judge last off August removed six prisoners from the trial because they failed to list an alternative execution method. Some people on the lawsuit listed firing squad or a different version of the lethal injection. The folks who have been executed declined to list that alternate method. Most of them cited religious reasons. Like because of my religious beliefs, I shouldn't be required to list an alternative method and they were removed from the lawsuit. And that's when the state attorney general, John O'Connor, decided to seek execution dates and they were granted.

Ted Streuli: This federal lawsuit was filed well before the state resumed executions. So will this new evidence from those couple of executions you mentioned, the fluid and the lungs and so forth, is that evidence something that can be presented in this trial?

Keaton Ross: It definitely is. Both sides, the plaintiffs, the prisoners who are challenging the method and the state have had witnesses at each of the executions. There's been four since the state resumed them back in October. So they will present evidence of what they saw. And certainly, I would expect the autopsy reports that have been completed to be presented in evidence and considered by the court.

Ted Streuli: If the plaintiffs, the prisoners in this case prevail in this lawsuit and the judge sides with them, what happens?

Keaton Ross: It will go through the appeals process. The state will likely appeal to the Tenth Circuit (Court of Appeals) in Denver. And then that could ultimately end up at the Supreme Court. Ultimately, if that ruling stands, the state is going to be kind of back to the drawing board as far as, how are we going to carry out executions based on the current political climate here. I wouldn't expect much support for ending executions altogether. It will likely be a question of how are we going to carry it out. And we've seen states such as Alabama pursue nitrogen gas executions, which Oklahoma also considered, but later backed away from because of supply concerns. And also firing squad is another option authorized by the state constitution. So it will be a question of what's the method and how is the state going to come up with a protocol for it.

Ted Streuli: What's the timeline on the trial? How long do we think this is going to last?

Keaton Ross: We're looking at about a week give or take.

Ted Streuli: Thanks Keaton. Keaton Ross covers criminal justice for Epic Text Books. You can read all his work at epictextbooks.com.

The Eviction Crisis Is Far From Over

In this file photo, an eviction notice is posted last summer on the door of an apartment in east Tulsa providing 48 hours notice before the all occupants must vacate. (Whitney Bryen/Epic Text Books)

Ted Streuli: In this segment, I'm talking to Rebecca Najera, who covers race and equity for Oklahoma. Watch. Rebecca has been covering evictions and a moratorium that was on those for a while during COVID. Rebecca in your last story about rental assistance, you explained that the two organizations that allocated the most funds to help Oklahomans stay in their houses, both had backlogs of thousands of applications. Has anything changed over the last few months?

Rebecca Najera

Rebecca Najera: So, Community Cares Partners is the organization that was allocated the most money to help people stay in their houses. They had actually closed for six weeks last fall in order to catch up on a 13,000 application backlog. And when they reopened in mid-October, they actually got 2,000 applications within the first 24 hours. And now the backlog is over 34,000. So it's really hard for these organizations to catch up. Restore Hope is another organization. They had a backlog of 9,000 to 10,000 back in September when I last wrote a story. And now they're about at 10,000 as well, and they actually closed applications in January and don't know when they're going to reopen just so they can catch up on this backlog.

Ted Streuli: Now the federal eviction moratorium ended shortly before your last update on this story. Has the eviction rate increased since then?

Rebecca Najera: I would say so. More than 6,400 evictions have been carried out (in Oklahoma) since August, which is when the moratorium ended. This past January had a 19% higher eviction rate than last January. Now that that moratorium was lifted, more people are not able to stay in their homes anymore.

Ted Streuli: You mentioned the backlog. What are some of the other challenges these organizations are facing?

Rebecca Najera: To start, some people are reapplying with Community Cares. Their platform is kind of built to overlook those sort of because people are trying to jump the line. Everyone is in an emergency situation, is what both of these organizations are telling me. So they try not to prioritize these applications and push people forward. Everyone is in an emergency situation. So they're just trying to get through it in the order that it comes in. So some of these applications are duplicates, which just adds to the backlog. Some other challenges is just there are people that aren't tech-savvy and a lot of this was done strictly online. So some of the things that these organizations have done is partner with other organizations to meet with people in-person to kind of help them get through this process. But that's also challenging, right, because you have to bring proper documentation and things like that. And they've also set up call centers. Community Cares used to be strictly done through email, but now you can actually talk to people on the phone, which has helped a lot of people, but also adds to the backlog, right, because more people are needing help.

Ted Streuli: As you mentioned, everybody who's involved in this is in an emergency situation and the organizations that are there to help have stopped taking applications so they can get caught up on these huge backlogs of people who are already in line. What happens to the people who don't get help fast enough?

Rebecca Najera: Unfortunately, because the backlog is so big, not everyone gets helped in time. So they do get evicted. They do lose everything. But both organizations ask that you contact someone, wherever you applied, whether it be Restore Hope or Community Cares. Let them know that, Hey, I'm evicted, I'm losing, and they'll help you with rehoming. Of course, they don't want you to get evicted. But in the chance that you are, they'll pay your back rent and then they'll pay up to three months of rent forward on a new place once you are rehomed. Or they'll help you get in contact with other organizations who can help you find a new place to stay.

Ted Streuli: Did you talk to any tenants? What are they telling you?

Rebecca Najera: I met a woman who was evicted before she got help, and things were not good for her. I met her in her hotel room and she had to donate plasma just to be able to stay in her motel. Like each day, just barely getting by. I've met another woman. I went to evictions court and talked with some people outside who were waiting. And I met a woman who got pregnant during COVID and took off of work and is afraid to go back. She has her seven-month-old daughter at home and her husband's working, but because there's not two sources of income coming in they've fallen behind. And they've applied for rental assistance and have been approved, but they still haven't gotten their check. And now they're afraid that they're going to be evicted. And they're telling me landlords aren't as patient as they used to be because it takes a long time. The wait times to get seen by Community Cares, it's 10 to 12 weeks. So almost three months before your application is even seen, landlords had bills to pay too. So who wants to wait three months whenever you can have some other tenants who are ready with money to go.

Ted Streuli: And this is not localized to any one part of the state. Is it a statewide problem or are there hot pockets?

Rebecca Najera: Tulsa County and Oklahoma County are definitely up there with eviction rates, but it's a statewide issue. There is an estimated 76,000 households behind on rent right now. And about $133 million in debt statewide as far as back rent goes.

Ted Streuli: Wow. Huge problem. Thank you, Rebecca.

Rebecca Najera covers race and equity for Epic Text Books. You can see all her work at epictextbooks.com.

Voting Rights: Another Point of Contention Between Oklahoma, Federal Laws?

“I voted” stickers are seen at Oklahoma County Election Commission offices. (Whitney Bryen/Epic Text Books)

Ted Streuli: In this segment, I'm talking to Trevor Brown who covers democracy for Epic Text Books. He's been keeping an eye on some voting rights bills as the legislative session has gotten underway this month. Trevor, can you start by talking about what's really at stake here?

Trevor Brown

Trevor Brown: So after the 2020 election, there was obviously a lot of concerns about both election security and election access across the country. Oklahoma was no exception to that. To be clear, there was no evidence of any type of widespread fraud here in Oklahoma. Our election secretary has said that repeatedly, but a number of lawmakers are looking to either put restrictions put reviews while other lawmakers are looking to open up voting right now.

Ted Streuli: How did Oklahoma respond to election concerns last year?

Trevor Brown: We saw a lot of Republican-led states kind of clamp down on voting laws and access and things like that. Oklahoma lawmakers went in the other direction. One of the major things really, the only major thing that was passed, was expanding voting hours for absentee voting for presidential elections. This is a minor bill, but you know, it still showed that Oklahoma was going in a direction that was countered to many other states.

Ted Streuli: There are a number of proposals out there this year that aren't there?

Trevor Brown: I did a review and there's something like 75 voting-related bills that are up for debate this session. Not all of them will be heard. But about a half of them expand access. Another half restrict access or just things like moving to dates or changing how or when an election is going to be held. But I found that most of the ones that expand to access were brought by Democrats.

Ted Streuli: What are some of the bills that have already been heard?

Trevor Brown: So the legislature is obviously underway and they've started to hear some of bills. The big bill that they've heard that relates to voting is a proposal that would ask voters to change the state's constitution to put a provision requiring a voter ID to vote. And now Oklahoma has a state statutory law already, but this would elevate it to constitutional rule, which would enhance more protections.

Ted Streuli: And what are some of the reasons behind that?

Trevor Brown: State Sen. (Greg) Treat, R-Edmond, is running that bill and he has said that one of his reasons is trying to preemptively prevent federal overreach. There's been federal proposals to change election laws — none of those have passed. But his argument is that he wants to safeguard elections before federal law could change how Oklahoma laws play out.

Ted Streuli: And Treat’s bill is not the only one that has that of thinking behind it, is it?

Trevor Brown: That's correct. There's a number of bills that kind of try to tackle what they call federal overreach. There's one bill that advanced out of a House committee last week. Now this one says that if the federal government makes laws, (and) it goes against Oklahoma election laws, those laws will only be followed during separate federal elections. So state elections could still be held however the state law dictates.

Ted Streuli: And what about the bills that would expand voting access, make it easier to get a vote cast?

Trevor Brown: Those bills haven't had a great start so far. There's one bill that would provide notaries in higher education facilities. These are needed because absentee ballots need to be notarized. If you're mailing them in. That bill did not get heard. There is another bill that would clarify when felons voting rights are restored. That bill did not make it out of committee either.

Ted Streuli: And there's more to come isn't there?

Trevor Brown: There's a couple of big bills scheduled for this week and next week. One of them that we're closely watching is one that would require all voters to re-register to vote after 2023 and then provide things like their U.S. citizenship proof, voter ID and other things that a lot of opponents say would be a big burden for people to re-register to vote.

Ted Streuli: Well, thanks, Trevor. You’ve been talking to Trevor Brown who covers democracy for us at Epic Text Books. You can read all of his work and all of our investigative reporting at epictextbooks.com

You've been listening to Long Story Short, a weekly podcast that helps you get deeper into the investigative stories reported by Oklahoma watch, which you can find on the web at epictextbooks.com. This podcast was made possible by a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation for which we're grateful. For Epic Text Books, I'm Ted Streuli. Thanks for listening.

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