Governor, new DHS boss announce 13% pay hike for workers

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and his new pick to lead the Department of Human Services say more than 3,700 agency employees will be getting a 13% pay raise.

Stitt and DHS Director Justin Brown announced the pay hikes Thursday and said most of those receiving the raises are "frontline" employees working in the agency's 92 field offices across the state.

Brown says the pay boost will bring the salaries of those workers closer to their peers in other state agencies. He says the agency also has more than 500 vacancies that it's looking to fill in the coming months.

The agency says the raises will be funded through its existing budget.


Tulsa man convicted of murder freed after DNA tests

By KEN MILLER Associated Press

A man who had served nearly 17 years of a prison sentence of life without parole for the death of a Tulsa, Oklahoma, lounge owner was released from prison Thursday after testing on evidence from the crime scene failed to find his DNA.

Willard O'Neal of Tulsa was released hours after pleading no contest to second-degree murder and being sentenced to time served under an agreement with prosecutors. He had been convicted of first-degree murder in the fatal 2001 shooting of Bruce Chamberlain outside the Trapeze Lounge.

When asked how he felt about his first breath of freedom, O'Neal said: "It's hard for me to do that. I'm just blessed. It's really hard to say." He added: "I'm going home to eat right now: chicken, cabbage, beans, whatever I can fit in my stomach."

By entering the plea, O'Neal does not admit guilt but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him, according to Vicki Behenna, director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, which took O'Neal's case in 2015.

"It's unfortunately what a lot of people who file for post-conviction relief have to do" to win their freedom, Behenna said. "He's 52 years-old, he got life without. If you have an opportunity to get out ... you take that chance" in order to be released. He was going to die in prison without this deal."

Behenna said she also believes a key prosecution witness lied to win leniency on unrelated charges when she testified that O'Neal told her he committed the crime.

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

O'Neal was arrested in 2002 and convicted in 2004 for killing Chamberlain and wounding another man in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 2001, as they left the lounge after closing.

O'Neal was also convicted and sentenced to life for shooting with intent to kill. That charge was dismissed Thursday following his plea.

The Oklahoma Innocence Project in 2015 first called for DNA testing of blood, shell casings and a beer bottle from the crime scene and of fingerprints on a vehicle connected to the slaying. The testing was conducted by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, which found no DNA from O'Neal on the evidence, according to Behenna.


Oklahoma appeals court upholds separate murder convictions

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld the separate first-degree murder convictions and life with parole sentences of two men.

The court on Thursday rejected appeals by 28-year-old Adrian Escajeda of Oklahoma City and 30-year-old Traevon Harbert of Warr Acres.

Escajeda was convicted in the December 2016 suffocation and strangulation death of Ulises Lopez. Escajeda said he intended only to "beat up" Lopez because he suspected Lopez of sexually abusing his girlfriend's 6-year-old daughter.

Harbert was convicted of the fatal March 2016 shooting of Demario Davis in what prosecutors say was retaliation for the earlier slaying of a friend of Harbert's. Harbert argued witnesses didn't identify him as one of two men seen on surveillance video shooting Davis, but the court found the witnesses did not provide positive identifications.


Oklahoma court affirms life sentence in slayings of 4 women

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld murder convictions and life prison sentences of a 45-year-old man in the killings of four women in a Tulsa apartment.

The court on Thursday rejected appeals by Cedric Poore, who was convicted in the 2013 shooting deaths of 23-year-old twins Rebeika Powell and Kayetie Powell Melchor, 33-year-old Misty Nunley, and 55-year-old Julie Jackson during a robbery inside Powell's apartment.

Prosecutors say drugs, money and jewelry were taken from the apartment.

The court rejected claims that included insufficient and improper evidence, illegal search and seizure, and improperly excluded testimony.

Poore's brother, 38-year-old James Poore, was also convicted in the slayings and sentenced to life in prison. His appeal was rejected by the court in April.