The City Sentinel’s Top 10 News Stories in Oklahoma City: Criminal Justice (led by Death Penalty), MAPs4, Gaming stalemate and Horn’s vote to Impeach Trump

Life and death under the rule of law, sustaining the MAPs brand, a stalemate over gaming levies and the local U.S. representative’s vote for Impeachment: These and other stories lead The City Sentinel’s annual listing of the top news stories in Oklahoma’s capital city.

A murder case from two decades ago and the death sentence ultimately pronounced remains intensely controversial. The Julius Jones case is the top city story of the past year.
Twenty years ago, Julius Darius Jones of Oklahoma City was charged with murder in the death of  Paul Scott Howell of Edmond.
Jones, a star basketball player and Honor Society member at John Marshall High School, was attending the University of Oklahoma on scholarship at the time Howell, a respected businessman, father and husband, was murdered in his driveway after a shopping trip.
Jones has consistently maintained innocence, but has lost one appeal after another. His family says he was home at the time of the killing. One juror says another juror in the Jones murder trial displayed racial animus. DNA evidence on a red kerchief, long withheld from forensic examination, is not conclusive, contrary to assertions of the current District Attorney.
Speaking of the local prosecutor, he backed away from a fall 2018 promise to let Jones’ defense team examine case files never studied by defense lawyers.
Jones has become the focus of an international movement, due to a widely viewed documentary in 2018, a dramatic surge of interest in the case after Kim Kardashian-West garnered hundreds of thousands of responses to her call for Oklahoma’s clemency system to quash the Jones death sentence.

The second top story is voter approval, on Dec. 10, of the MAPs4 program, a compilation of 16 projects bringing a new emphasis on neighborhood needs, health and wellness centers, fairgrounds and Chesapeake Arena work, and a “no-kill” animal shelter project dubbed PAWS for MAPs.
Mayor David Holt led the push for a YES vote – gaining a record-setting 71.71 percent of the vote – albeit in a election with low turnout. Retaining the existing sales tax burden will bring in $978 million over the next eight years. The Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPs) have come a long way, baby.

The stalemate over gaming compacts between the state and 32 Indian Nations continued as The City Sentinel went to press. In fact, the disagreement over the issue dramatically intensified in the days after Christmas and before the New Year. The Chickasaw, Cherokee and Choctaw Nations sued over Governor Kevin Stitt’s refusal to recognize automatic renewal of the compacts at midnight on Wednesday. 

The compact controversy is our third top local story for 2019, and the top story statewide in the annual listing compiled by CapitolBeatOK, the online news service focused on state government policy and news.
Major tribes were dismissive toward Governor Stitt’s summer letter asking for renegotiation of provisions in compacts slated to end on Jan. 1. Oklahoma’s rates are among the lowest levied for any exclusivity agreement in the United States, but tribal leaders took the position (backed by some state leaders of past and present) that the rates should automatically stay in place. Stitt consistently rejected that view.
The state’s chief executive proposed an eight-month extension of existing compact provisions, a suggestion Big Tribe leaders immediately rebuffed. Then, the state attorney general (who had previously suggested arbitration) withdrew as Stitt’s negotiator, without giving reasons for his stand-down.
Just before Christmas week, Stitt said the state would resume auditing gaming operations on Jan. 2. The rates tribes pay to out-of-state vendors are higher than rates paid to vendors elsewhere, a point of contention that has emerged in recent weeks.

The fourth top story is the continued vibrancy of local communities of faith, illustrated in celebrations that book-ended the calendar of the last year.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish celebrated a century of service and faith from its location at N.W. 31 and Western Ave. After five months of work, the Church was rededicated by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley in November. Dozens of other ordained clergy joined the Catholic leader at his home church to renew a commitment to the heart of Oklahoma City and Roman Catholicism.
First Unitarian Church has marked 125 years of community involvement, most of that time at the corner of N.W. 13 and Dewey (the north edge of downtown Oklahoma City). Rev. Dr. Diana Davies, pastor at First Unitarian since May 2018, said she was drawn to the local pulpit because “of the way people in this community care for one another” and “the way this congregation has engaged with the larger Oklahoma City community.”

A native of Oklahoma City, performance artist Sonja Martinez hosted her 29th Annual Christmas AIDS Benefit in December benefiting The Winds House, a residence in Oklahoma City for individuals living with HIV and AIDS. Martinez is an icon for many, living out a love for her family, animals, the environment and the Oklahoma City LGBT community. 
Together with her wife Dee Goodman, Martinez has held numerous fundraisers and events making her a civic leader in an important part of the local mosaic. She was honored with the Richard May Award established by the Oklahoma AIDS Care Fund in 2009, and in 2012 received the Cimarron Alliance Bill Rogers Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2017, she was honored as the OKC Pride Parade Grand Marshall. Putting it all together as a way of granting our own “lifetime achievement” award, Martinez and her life of service is The City Sentinel’s fifth top story for 2019. 

The sixth top story in Oklahoma City for 2019 was the vote U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn cast to impeach President Donald Trump. After a dramatic narrow victory in 2018, in which Horn narrowly defeated a Republican incumbent, Horn had carefully followed a moderate-looking path on multiple issues as the first Democrat to hold the Fifth Congressional District seat in 44 years. Then, several weeks ago she supported provisions for an impeachment process in the U.S. House of Representatives. In mid-December, Rep. Horn voted to impeach Trump, who enjoys majority support in the Sooner State as he faces a Senate trial. Four Republicans in the state delegation opposed the two impeachment provisions. 

After nine years at the American Civil Liberties Union, Allie Shinn became executive director of Freedom Oklahoma (formerly the Cimarron Alliance) in March. Her performance has resurrected good management principles and stewardship. It is The City Sentinel’s seventh top story of 2019. Shinn left the security of the ACLU, an established national group, to embrace the top job at an organization which, after years of rising influence on public policy, had faced rough times. 
Poor leadership eroded support. Shinn forged a positive direction for the LGBTQ advocacy group. She serves on the Board for Sally’s List and regularly volunteers her time to local and statewide elections. Shinn holds a B.A. in History and a Master of Science in International Studies, both from Oklahoma State University. In addition to her advocacy, she supports public art projects and numerous local causes.

The City Sentinel’s eighth top story is the intensifying impact of broader criminal justice reform in Oklahoma City. Governor Stitt supported legislative measures putting “meat on the bone” of a reform process that began in 2012, but sputtered under his predecessor. He supported commutations and other steps that led to historic releases of non-violent offenders. He has further reforms in mind. He has some disagreement with activists backing a new citizen initiative for criminal justice reform. They want to accelerate the pace of change in the state’s unenviable status as #1 for incarceration. 
The story is not over. An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over conditions on Oklahoma’s death row will now unfold. The work of the Oklahoma Innocence Project led to exoneration and release of Willard O’Neal after he served 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. On a related track, President Trump’s pardon of Michael Behenna, a U.S. Army lieutenant who had been incarcerated for killing a prisoner in Iraq, drew worldwide attention.
The story of the ever-troubled Oklahoma County Jail is a center of attention. Disagreement between the Sheriff, who now runs the jail, and county commissioners has put the new Jail Trust, under the leadership of Tricia Everest, in the middle. 
Bet on it: These issues will help define the year 2020, as they did 2019. 

Each years brings the passing of notable leaders who inspired people in and around our city. This year, The City Sentinel points to the passing of three men – broadly representative of all those lost, and remembered with honor – as our ninth top local story.
Jim Rowan, arguably the best-known capital defense lawyer hereabouts, left us too soon. Bob Waldrop, a tireless worker who forged practical steps to assist the poor over several decades – perhaps best known for his leadership of the Dorothy Day Center – died after a long illness. The life of  Charles Surveyor, an honored U.S. military veteran and a leader of Oklahoma’s Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, was outlined in a story for The City Sentinel after his death here last spring.

As in past years, we honor the vibrancy and impact of the local arts community. This year, their combined achievements merit the ranking as the tenth top local news story.
In our estimation at or near the top in this group is the stellar work of the Brightmusic Society (presenting great chamber music several times a year), and the local equity company OKC Rep (formerly CityRep). Then, there’s the Paseo Neighborhood, America’s greatest historic arts district. These embody the reach for professional excellence in performing arts.
And then there’s the Ann Lacy School of American Dance at Oklahoma City University. OCU’s efforts have – in the work of the American Spirit Dance Company, liturgical dancers and other stellar programs – garnered recognition as the nation’s finest Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program. For the second year running, OCU ranked ahead of New York’s renowned Julliard in such practical categories as cost, scholarships, curriculum, performance opportunities, facilities, experienced faculty and support for the career of young performers.

Oklahoma City’s best days lie ahead. The most efficient way to capture our confidence is to quote from our review, posted first on Facebook, of this year’s opening night (Dec. 5) for the ageless Jo Rowan’s production at OCU known as “Home for the Holidays.”
The show began “before an overwhelmingly enthusiastic crowd. The kickline was a powerful demonstration of the astonishing precision and soaring excellence that has for many years characterized the work of The American Spirit Dance Company, based at Oklahoma City University. Please understand: That sentence of highest praise is just the start of the story: This year’s entry may be the best ‘Home for the Holidays’ ever. Ballet, Jazz Dance, ‘50s style rockin’ and rollin’, fun numbers for the season, and much more, including tender and emotional spiritual flourishes. This show is as good as it gets.”

A future we will share: As good as it gets.