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Gallup survey reveals most Americans support life imprisonment over death penalty

A recent Gallup survey regarding the death penalty revealed a majority of Americans now favor life imprisonment without parole as a punishment for murder over capital punishment when given a choice between the two.

In findings made public Monday, 56% of 1,526 adults surveyed between Oct. 14-31 said they are in favor of the death penalty for those convicted of murder. But in a 15% swing from five years ago, 60% of those questioned last month preferred life in prison without parole if they were given the option in lieu of a death sentence.

The results mark the first time in Gallup’s 34-year record of tracking the issue that most Americans surveyed supported an alternative to the death penalty when presented with a choice.

“This is a pretty dramatic shift in opinion,” said Jeffrey Jones, who conducted the survey.

Gallup’s survey indicates cases such as Julius Jones, an Oklahoma man on death row whose innocence claims drew attention from Kim Kardashian West, and Rodney Reed of Texas could be a factor in moving public opinion away from the death penalty. Reed received a stay of his execution this month amid innocence claims of his own, although his stay was announced after the completion of Gallup’s survey.

Twenty-nine states, including Oklahoma, have the death penalty on the books as a possible punishment for murder convictions. But Oklahoma has had a moratorium on its use since October 2015, when the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a stay on all executions after a problem with the drugs meant for the execution of Richard Glossip.

The lethal injection drugs intended for use during Glossip’s scheduled execution would have included potassium acetate, a drug not listed in the Department of Corrections’ protocol at the time and incorrectly used during the January 2015 execution of Charles Warner.

The mistakes during both cases were part of a multicounty grand jury inquiry into how state officials handled the situations. The jury in May 2016 released a scathing report against then-Gov. Mary Fallin’s former general counsel for “flippantly and recklessly” disregarding the DOC’s protocol, and a judge said the jurors made clear the extent of “monkey business” within the DOC.

However, a majority of those who voted in the November 2016 election supported State Question 776, which amended the Oklahoma Constitution to specify the state’s right to perform executions and prohibits the death penalty from being deemed “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In March 2018, then-Oklahoma DOC Director Joe Allbaugh and Attorney General Mike Hunter announced the state would use nitrogen hypoxia as its primary method of execution at least partly due to continued challenges in finding lethal injection drugs. However, a protocol outlining its use has yet to be made public and the state has struggled to find a supplier.

“Oklahomans spoke loud and clear when they voted in 2016 to enshrine capital punishment into the state’s constitution,” said Alex Gerszewski, Hunter’s director of communications. “We owe it to not only Oklahomans who believe in capital punishment, but also the victims’ families, who wait for and expect justice to be carried out. We continue to work with the Department of Corrections to finalize the new execution protocol for nitrogen hypoxia.”

Jones said the possibility of wrongful convictions is among the top reasons cited by those who oppose use of the death penalty, along with practical concerns such as the cost of carrying out death sentences, mistakes by those involved in the process and moral opposition to government authorities committing acts of homicide.

But he also said the two major political parties in the United States have incorporated support or opposition of capital punishment into their party platforms, which he said contributes to increased polarization about the subject.

“We’ve seen that on climate change and labor unions — there’s always been party differences on those issues but they weren’t that large until now,” Jones said. He noted Republicans are the only political group in which a majority favor the death penalty over an alternative such as life imprisonment without parole, while self-identified Democrats and independents largely prefer life in prison as an option.

“With some of the thought leaders in each party, there isn’t much room for people to hold different opinions on some of these issues,” Jones said. Of those who still favor the death penalty, he said many respondents value the retributive aspect of imposing such a punishment against those who kill.

“It’s like ‘They took a life so their life deserves to be taken’ — ‘An eye for an eye,’ ” Jones said.

Hunter’s office told the Court of Criminal Appeals this month that it is still not an appropriate time to set execution dates. Once a protocol is finalized, executions cannot be scheduled for at least 150 days to allow attorneys for those on death row to file necessary legal challenges.


Teacher numbers up as pay raises make hiring, retention easier, education leaders say

Oklahoma’s teacher workforce numbers are rebounding, and state and local education leaders say statewide teacher pay raises passed by the Legislature appear to be helping.

New data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education show there are 43,056 classroom teachers working across the state for 2019-20. That represents an increase of 603 or 1.42% compared to the previous year and 1,761 or 4.26% more than three years ago, when they dipped to the lowest level in about a decade.

“Because of concentrated efforts to attract and retain teachers over the last several years, we can now report that school districts are hiring and more people want to teach in Oklahoma,” said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.

Officials in growing Tulsa-area districts say they’ve been able to afford new positions the last couple of years because of the increase in local ad valorem revenue. But the statewide teacher pay raises are preventing early teacher retirements and helping attract new hires, they say.

Collinsville Superintendent Lance West said his district got as low as 181 certified staff in FY 2016 and in FY 2017. This year, the district is up 22 certified positions to 203 total.

“At our lowest staffing levels, class sizes weren’t right — they were too big at the middle school and high school levels,” West said. “We got paid the (statewide) raises on the staff we had at the time, but at least at Collinsville, our ad valorem (revenue) has grown a little, so we’ve been able to fill positions we were holding open and add some new positions to help with our student growth.”

West said the statewide pay raises have made the job of filling positions easier.

“I think it helped tremendously on teacher retention and getting teachers to come back to the field. I was able to hire two retirees who are great teachers,” he said.

Likewise, Jenks Public Schools has added new teaching positions the last two years “out of necessity due to student growth,” said, Rob Loeber, director of communications.

“While the teacher raises have helped in recruiting and retaining teachers, the raises are not the main factor in why we have added teaching positions. We have had to make careful decisions about which positions we add and where,” Loeber said. “We would like to be able to add more positions, but we don’t have the operational funding to do so.”

Meanwhile, the overall number of public school students in Oklahoma has steadily ticked upward, with nearly 10,000 new students on the rolls since the state’s teacher workforce was at its lowest level in recent years.

“We still have work to do to ensure we have a sufficient educator workforce to reduce class sizes and bolster student learning, but this sustained uptick in (teacher) numbers is a strong indicator that we have begun to reverse course and attract new talent to a profession with unparalleled impact on young lives,” State Superintendent Hofmeister said.

Owasso added 12 elementary school teachers and one English language development teacher for the 2019-20 academic year primarily because local leaders have made reducing class sizes a priority.

“Morrow Elementary, our ninth elementary school, opened this year. With the new school and redistricting the elementary boundaries of the entire district, we had ample classroom space to accommodate the additional teachers,” said Superintendent Amy Fichtner. “Lower class size is attractive to teachers as well as to parents seeking an optimal learning environment for their children.”

Fichtner said the statewide teacher pay raises “did not directly relate to the number of increased positions, but it certainly enhanced the attractiveness of our total compensation package.”

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White House review turns up emails showing extensive effort to justify Trump's decision to block Ukraine military aid

WASHINGTON — A confidential White House review of President Donald Trump’s decision to place a hold on military aid to Ukraine has turned up hundreds of documents that reveal extensive efforts to generate an after-the-fact justification for the decision and a debate over whether the delay was legal, according to three people familiar with the records.

The research by the White House Counsel’s Office, which was triggered by a congressional impeachment inquiry announced in September, includes early August email exchanges between acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House budget officials seeking to provide an explanation for withholding the funds after Trump had already ordered a hold in mid-July on the nearly $400 million in security assistance, according to the three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.

One person briefed on the records examination said White House lawyers are expressing concern that the review has turned up some unflattering exchanges and facts that could at a minimum embarrass the president. It’s unclear if the Mulvaney discussions or other records pose any legal problems for Trump in the impeachment inquiry, but some fear they could pose political problems if revealed publicly.

People familiar with the Office of Management and Budget’s handling of the holdup in aid acknowledged the internal discussions going on during August, but characterized the conversations as calm, routine and focused on the legal question of how to comply with the congressional Budget and Impoundment Act, which requires the executive branch to spend congressionally appropriated funds unless Congress agrees they can be rescinded.

“There was a legal consensus at every step of the way that the money could be withheld to conduct the policy review,” said OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel. “OMB works closely with agencies on executing the budget. Routine practices and procedures were followed, not scrambling.”

The hold on the military aid is at the heart of House Democrats’ investigation into whether the president should be removed from office for allegedly trying to pressure Ukraine into investigating his rivals in exchange for the U.S. support that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wanted in the face of Russian aggression.

In the early August email exchanges, Mulvaney asked Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought for an update on the legal rationale for withholding the aid and how long it could be delayed. Trump had made the decision the previous month without an assessment of the reasoning or legal justification, according to two White House officials. Emails show Vought and OMB staffers arguing that withholding aid was legal, while officials at the National Security Council and State Department protested. OMB lawyers said that it was legal to withhold the aid, as long as they deemed it a “temporary” hold, according to people familiar with the review.

A senior budget lawyer crafted a memo on July 25 that defended the hold for at least a short period of time, an administration official said.

Mulvaney’s request for information came days after the White House Counsel’s Office was put on notice that an anonymous CIA official had made a complaint to the agency’s general counsel about Trump’s July 25 call to Zelenskiy during which he requested Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, as well as a theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

This official would later file a whistleblower complaint with the intelligence community’s inspector general, which ignited the impeachment push when its existence became public.

The White House released the funds to Ukraine on Sept. 11. The timing has drawn scrutiny because it came two days after the House announced it was launching an inquiry into the whistleblower complaint, which raised concerns about the call and whether the president was using his public office for personal political gain.

Trump has acknowledged ordering the hold on military aid and pressing Ukraine’s president to investigate his potential Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, but said the release of the funds was not conditioned on Ukraine launching an investigation.

The office of White House Counsel Pat Cipollone oversaw the records review. The White House press office and the White House Counsel’s Office did not respond to requests for comment. Mulvaney’s lawyer, Robert Driscoll, declined to comment.

The document research has only exacerbated growing tension between Cipollone and Mulvaney and their offices, with Cipollone tightly controlling access to his findings, and Mulvaney’s aides complaining Cipollone isn’t briefing other White House officials or sharing important material they need to respond to public inquiries, according to people familiar with their relationship.

Mulvaney is a critical player in the Ukraine saga, as he has acknowledged that he asked OMB to block the release of congressionally-approved aid to Ukraine — at the president’s request — in early to mid-July of 2019.

The emails revealed by White House lawyers include some in which Mulvaney urges Vought to immediately focus on Ukraine’s aid package, making clear it was a top priority for the administration.

The legal office launched this fact-finding review of internal records in a protective mode, both to determine what the records might reveal about internal administration conversations and also to help the White House produce a timeline for defending Trump’s decision and his public comments. Along with examining documents, the review has also involved interviewing some key White House officials involved in handling Ukraine aid and dealing with complaints and concerns in the aftermath of the call between Trump and Zelensky.

Cipollone’s office has focused closely on correspondence that could be subject to public records requests, those which involve discussions between staff at the White House and at other agencies. Internal White House records are not subject to federal public records law but messages that include officials at federal agencies are.

Also included in the review are email conversations between OMB and State Department officials and others discussing why the White House was holding up nearly $400 million in military aid and whether the hold might violate the law, one person said. In December 2018, months before the Ukraine issue surfaced as a top priority for the president, the Government Accountability Office had warned OMB it was not following the law in how it chose to disburse and withhold congressionally-approved funds.

Cipollone has told House impeachment investigators that the White House will not cooperate in with the inquiry in any way, including by greenlighting witnesses or turning over documents.

While some officials from the departments of State and Defense have testified publicly about their concerns over whether the administration was seeking to leverage the aid and a White House visit for the political investigations, only one OMB official has appeared before the congressional committees.

Mark Sandy, a career OMB official, has testified that the decision to delay aid to Ukraine was highly unusual, and senior political appointees in his office wanted to be involved in reviewing the aid package. Sandy testified that he had never in his career seen a senior political OMB official assume control of a portfolio in such a fashion, according to the people familiar with his testimony.

Sandy told impeachment investigators he had questions about whether it was legal to withhold aid Congress had expressly authorized to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia, but OMB lawyers told him it was fine as long as they called it a “temporary” hold, according to a person familiar with Sandy’s account. Sandy, the deputy associate director for national security programs at OMB, signed formal letters to freeze the funds, but top political appointees were unable to provide him with an explanation for the delay.

Trump has continued to describe that impeachment investigation as a “hoax” and maintain that he did nothing wrong.

“This is a continuation of the witch hunt which has gone on from before I got elected,” he told Fox News on Friday.

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Route 66 Marathon features world record, organizers say

Thousands of runners took part in Sunday’s Williams Route 66 Marathon, and organizers said a world record was set.

Julia Webb set a Guinness Book of World Records record for fastest time finishing a half-marathon while pushing a stroller; and she won the half-marathon for females overall (with that stroller) with a time of 1:21:24, organizers said in a news release Sunday.

About 1,700 people took part in the 26.2-mile course; nearly 3,800 ran the 13.1-mile half-marathon, organizers said.

Nathan Chamer set both an overall men’s course record for the Route 66 Marathon and the Oklahoma state record in the master’s male half-marathon. He won Sunday’s half-marathon for men overall with a time of 1:09:35.

“Course support this whole weekend has been amazing,” said Destiny Green, executive director of the marathon.

“Our runners are having a great time and enjoying everything Tulsa offers. The races went smoothly, and the weather was beautiful.

“We appreciate our sponsors and volunteers; there is no way to bring this to Tulsa without them. Any year you set course records is a good one for runners, and we saw record-setting runs this weekend.”