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Julius Jones' death sentence in 1999 Oklahoma murder should be commuted, panel finds

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board's recommendation goes to Gov. Kevin Stitt, who will make the final decision.
Syndication: The Oklahoman
Supporters of Julius Jones march in Oklahoma City on Monday.Doug Hoke / The Oklahoman via USA Today Network

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on Monday recommended that the death sentence be commuted for Julius Jones, whose case has attracted the attention of people across the country, including several celebrities. The case now goes to Gov. Kevin Stitt to decide whether to change Jones' sentence to life in prison.

“I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubt, and put simply, I have doubts in this case,” said the board's chairman, Adam Luck. “I cannot ignore those doubts, especially when the stakes are life and death.”

The board voted 3 to 1, with a fifth member recusing himself, in favor of Jones' commutation.

“I don’t have a lot of words. I’m just thanking God,” said Jones’ younger sister, Antoinette Jones, moments after the board’s decision as she and her family headed to church.

Carly Atchison, a spokeswoman for Stitt, said the governor “takes his role in this process seriously and will carefully consider the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation as he does in all cases.”

Jones, who is Black, has been on death row for nearly two decades for the murder of Paul Howell, a white insurance executive, who was shot in his parents’ driveway as he, his sister and his two young daughters were returning from getting ice cream on a July night in 1999. Howell was also run over as the shooter fled the scene.

“I was there when my brother was murdered,” his sister Megan Howell Tobey told the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board during Monday’s commutation hearing. “I know beyond a doubt that Julius Jones murdered my brother.”

Julius Jones was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1999 shooting death of businessman Paul Howell.Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP file

Jones, who was a freshman at the University of Oklahoma at the time of the killing, has maintained his innocence. He and his legal team have said in legal filings that Jones’ high school acquaintance, Christopher Jordan, was responsible for the crime. They say the following evening, when Jordan stayed the night at Jones’ house, he planted the gun in Jones’ bedroom crawl space, along with the red bandana witnesses said the murderer was wearing.

Jordan has denied this, saying in court that he drove the car with Jones the night of the murder but didn’t shoot Howell. Jordan received a life sentence on a murder charge after admitting to his role in the killing but was released after 15 years. He could not immediately be reached for comment on Monday.

In his request for a commutation hearing, Jones said that he was at home having dinner with his parents the night Howell was killed. But at his 2000 trial, his attorneys did not call any witnesses on his behalf, and he claims that despite his willingness to take the stand, his attorneys discouraged him from doing so.

“While I wish that I’d gone to the police with what I knew, I was scared to get involved,” Jones wrote in his commutation request. “I was, like other young black men in my neighborhood, afraid of the police, and I didn’t trust them.”

Sandra Howell-Elliott, an Oklahoma County assistant district attorney who tried the case in 2000, defended Jones’ conviction at Monday’s hearing. “I argue that the facts presented in the trial court clearly indicated that Mr. Jones was a continuing threat to society,” she said.

In recent years, Jones’ case has galvanized widespread public support, both locally and from celebrities like reality TV star Kim Kardashian, who visited Jones on Oklahoma’s death row in 2020 after learning about his case from an ABC documentary. Last week, CBS' “The Late Late Show” host James Corden released a video detailing what he described as Jones’ “unjust trial” and the “overwhelming evidence of his innocence.”

The Howell family disagrees, pointing to the multiple times the conviction has been upheld on appeal. For them, the renewed attention on Jones’ conviction is unwarranted and traumatic, they said.

“It’s one thing to go through something like this, especially as a child. It’s another thing when you grow up and try to move on and this all comes running back in what feels like it’s punching you in the gut,” Rachel Howell, Paul Howell’s daughter and a witness to his murder, told the Pardon and Parole Board Monday. “The overwhelming amount of evidence is there, and the courts made their decisions. But over the last few years, it seems like this has just all blown up.”

Jones’ attorneys have noted that 11 of the 12 jurors in his trial were white, and the attorneys argue that one of those jurors should have been removed after another juror reported to the court that he said “they should put him [Jones] in a box and put him in the ground after this is all over for what he’s done.” In 2018, the juror who reported the incident also told Jones’ public defenders that the other juror used a racial slur when referring to Jones during the trial, court documents show.

Jones’ attorneys and supporters say that his case is an example of prosecutorial misconduct in the office of the Oklahoma County district attorney at the time, Bob Macy; Macy died in 2011 and the district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Monday. A study by Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project found that Macy prosecuted more death penalty cases than any other district attorney in the country, nearly half of which were overturned, and three defendants were exonerated.

The report found that courts cited prosecutorial misconduct in many of Macy's cases, and several were tied to disgraced Oklahoma City police forensics chemist Joyce Gilchrist, who the FBI and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office found falsified dozens of cases. Gilchrist denied any wrongdoing, and she was never charged.

In 2017, a bipartisan group of state leaders, academics, attorneys and criminal justice advocates concluded that not only were there serious shortcomings in the way death penalty cases are investigated and litigated in the state, but that “it is undeniable that innocent people have been sentenced to death in Oklahoma.”

Jones’ case has fueled growing calls in Oklahoma to examine racial inequities in the state’s justice system, which has for decades had one of the highest rates of incarceration per capita in the United States.

A 2017 study by the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that defendants of color in Oklahoma accused of killing white victims are more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty, compared to white defendants accused of the same crime.

“I think we’re in a place where people are tired of what we’re seeing and want something different,” said the Rev. Cece Jones-Davis (no relation to Julius Jones), who is helping lead Justice for Julius Jones, a local initiative of advocates and supporters who want to see his conviction overturned. “I think we’re living in a time where people are more culturally engaged,” she said, pointing to the nationwide discussions on the justice system since the death of George Floyd.

Both the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s office and the Oklahoma attorney general have pressed hard for Jones’s execution to move forward.

Last week, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater asked the state Supreme Court to recuse two of the state’s Pardon and Parole Board members from Jones’ commutation hearing, claiming that their previous criminal justice reform work makes them incapable of impartiality in the matter. The court denied that request. The Pardon and Parole Board member who recused himself did so because he knew one of the people who testified.

Jones is among about half a dozen men on Oklahoma’s death row whom state Attorney General John O’Connor is seeking to execute after a more than five-year moratorium on executions. The moratorium came after a string of missteps in administering lethal injections, including the botched execution of Clayton Lockett and a drug mix-up that halted the execution of Richard Glossip. Despite the moratorium, Oklahoma still ranks No. 3 for most executions by state, according the Death Penalty Information Center.