Prisoners in Oklahoma will soon have a new friend fighting on their behalf.
W. Kevin Armstrong, a professional journalist for 30 years who recently returned to his native home in Oklahoma, has started a nonprofit investigative journalism organization called “OKJ2 – Oklahoma Journalists for Justice.”
He says the purpose of OKJ2 Inc. is “to use our investigative skills as professional and student journalists to validate or debunk claims that some men and women have been convicted of crimes they did not commit and are unfairly imprisoned in Oklahoma. Through our findings, we seek to have the courts reopen criminal cases that could lead to wrongfully convicted inmates being set free.”
Armstrong adds that this specific mission derives from his broader goal of making life better for all citizens of the State of Oklahoma. In starting OKJ2, Armstrong points to several factors:
- Oklahoma leads the nation in the per capita rate of incarcerating women.
- Oklahoma ranks in the top five among the 50 states in the per capita rate of incarcerating men.
- Oklahoma ranks third in the United States in the most number of inmates put to death for crimes.
- Oklahoma is No. 1 in the per capita rate for capital punishment.
- An estimated 7 percent of all children in Oklahoma have at least one parent incarcerated.
Armstrong, 51, says that “while our primary mission is examining cases of wrongful convictions, OKJ2 also is dedicated to reporting on related issues to the prison systems in Oklahoma to provide greater context about what contributes to the problem of penal injustice.”
OKJ2 will publish its investigative findings on the Internet at www.okj2.org (the site is still being developed and will launch in October) and share its work with other media outlets around the State of Oklahoma, both public and private, for the purpose of shedding light on wrongful convictions.
“We understand that we do not have the power to overturn any person’s conviction and sentence – that resides alone in the courts – but we can bring cases into the public spotlight in hopes of seeing the legal community take action against any injustices that we identify,” Armstrong says.
Armstrong said another impetus for the organization is the Justice Project at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University outside Chicago. That program (http://www.medilljusticeproject.org) began in 1999 by having undergraduate journalism students look into cases of criminals in Illinois who may have been wrongfully convicted. The students were able to show that a man on death row was innocent. As a result, the prisoner not only was set free but the governor and legislature banned capital punishment in Illinois over fears that an innocent man was about to be put to death. Students continue to investigate new cases every semester at Northwestern.
Armstrong said OKJ2 also would like to get students at Oklahoma universities involved, but for now he is getting started alone with the help of a six-member board of directors. They are currently applying for several grants from journalism and community foundations in Oklahoma.
Armstrong, who lives in Broken Arrow, spent a quarter-century as a journalist in Virginia before moving back to Tulsa in 2008 to teach journalism at Oral Roberts University. Armstrong resigned that post earlier this year and in April was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year by the Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He remains an active member of the Tulsa Press Club and has been involved with the Oklahoma Press Association and Oklahoma College Media Association.
Armstrong says this nonprofit corporation is organized exclusively for charitable and educational purposes. “We will serve as a safeguard for defendants who feel that the federal, state and municipal court systems in Oklahoma have failed them in some regard. We will not require financial compensation from any inmate for providing these services,” he says.
“We will refrain from political partisanship. We will differ from the legal community in our investigative approach by not taking sides and agreeing to publish our findings whether it reinforces the state’s guilty verdict against the accused or sheds new light on the convict’s innocence.”
Armstrong will be speaking about the organization at the Oct. 12 meeting of OK CURE. For more information, contact Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (918) 935-6959.