Still Waiting: Oklahoma’s juvenile life without parole prisoners struggle to get attorneys, new hearings

By Jana Allen

Brianna Bailey knew she wanted to become a journalist after being part of her high school’s newspaper, and came to OU to study journalism after taking a few years off of college to get married and be with her Air Force husband in Germany.

When Bailey started in college in the early 2000’s, the only thing she knew she wanted to do was work for a newspaper. That is what she did for the beginning of her career, but she had no idea when she started that newspapers were going to be dying.

After graduating from OU, Bailey worked for the Norman Transcript for a year and did a little bit of everything: copyediting, page design, cops reporter one night a week and wrote the religious section.

She and her husband then moved to Orange County, California where she worked for a daily newspaper called the Daily Pilot for three years and then moved back to Oklahoma to work for the Journal Record for three years, then worked at The Oklahoman for three years.

In 2016, after ten years working for newspapers, Bailey was offered a position with The Frontier, a nonprofit news organization that would allow her to focus on longform investigative work.

This April she published the story she had worked the longest on in her career, a total of about six months spent researching, reporting, and then writing.

The three-part series titled “Still Waiting” focuses on prisoners serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed while juveniles, and how their Constitutional rights may be being violated by not being able to get a new trial.

The Supreme Court laid out new standards, saying that most of these prisoners are entitled to a new sentencing hearing that takes into account their age and potential for rehabilitation into account.

Bailey found, through a lot of manual digging through court cases, that only seven of the 43 prisoners this applies to in Oklahoma have been resentenced. She decided to write a letter to each of the 36 that had not, and said she heard back from some but not all.

Most of those that she spoke with had either been trying to get an attorney for a new sentencing hearing, didn’t know how to go about getting an attorney, or didn’t even know they were able to.

And most of them had been convicted of murder.

When asked what it’s like talking to someone convicted of murder, Bailey said despite being somewhat desensitized to some of it at that point, it was definitely weird.

“Some of their crimes were really horrible,” Bailey said. “But every one of them that I talked to, I tried to treat with respect and just talk to them like a person.”

One of the most important things Bailey did when interviewing the prisoners was “trust, but verify.”

“It’s hard to know if a person’s always telling you the truth, or if they’re telling a version of the truth that’s more beneficial to them, or makes them look better,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the most challenging part of the project was being fair with the stories.

“I mean, the victims families, yes, they were wronged,” Bailey said. “But, also, the state of Oklahoma has to follow the Constitution, and these people have constitutional rights that are being violated. I don’t know that I got that across successfully. There’s things I would probably do differently or report differently if I were to go back to do it today.”

After the project was released, Bailey said there was a mixed reaction. A lot of people don’t like murderers, Bailey said, and don’t want them to get out of prison.

But there was also some positive outcomes.

“One of the women that I wrote about, Dana Barker, she has an attorney now who is working on her case pro bono, and that came as a result of my story,” Bailey said.

Bailey said one of her biggest takeaways from working on this project was how to organize such a large amount of information and figure out what your story is from gathered data.

When it comes to advice for young reporters soon to start their career, Bailey said she would suggest trying out as many different beats as you can.

Everything she learned from covering a city council meeting to a court case to an armed robbery to being a business reporter, she uses everyday as an investigative reporter.

And you don’t have to wait until you’re a big shot somewhere to do investigative work, Bailey said.

“You know, if there’s something on your beat that you see is something that could be more of a story, you could uncover more information, file a couple records request,” Bailey said. “You don’t have to just report on what people tell you the story is, you can you can decide what the story is, and, and get records and talk to people and answer the questions.”

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