Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board today recommended that Julius Jones’s death sentence be commuted to life in prison after board members expressed doubts about his guilt in a 1999 shooting.
“I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubt, and put simply, I have doubts in this case,” board Chairman Adam Luck said. “I cannot ignore those doubts, especially when the stakes are life and death.”
In its first-ever commutation hearing in a death penalty case, the board voted 3-1 in favor of the commutation recommendation after Scott Williams recused himself because of a professional relationship with Mr. Jones’s attorney. The three votes came from Mr. Luck, Kelly Doyle, and Larry Morris.
Ms. Doyle said she had doubts about the case against Mr. Jones and believed it was “not in the best interest of the state” to execute him, The Frontier reported. She also pointed to the “excessive nature” of the death penalty for someone who was a teenager at the time, given “what we know now about brain science and brain development.”
The decision came after a four-hour hearing that included testimony from the victim’s family, an Oklahoma County prosecutor, and advocates for Mr. Jones.
Julius Jones, now 41, was just 19 when Paul Howell, a white insurance executive, was fatally shot in Edmond, Oklahoma, an affluent suburb north of Oklahoma City.
Mr. Jones, a Black man, has long maintained his innocence, alleging that he was framed by the actual killer, who testified that Mr. Jones was the shooter and, Mr. Jones said in his commutation application, planted incriminating evidence in his home.
The only eyewitness description of the shooter did not match Mr. Jones’s appearance at the time of the crime—it matched codefendant Chris Jordan, the State’s key witness against Mr. Jones. And in recent years, four people have come forward to support that Jordan framed Julius Jones and bragged that he made a deal with prosecutors to get out of prison after only 15 years, the Black Wall Street Times reports.
Racial discrimination affected Mr. Jones’s trial in troubling ways, EJI director Bryan Stevenson wrote in a letter of support to the board and the governor. In a case with a Black defendant and a white victim, the prosecutors struck all qualified African Americans from the jury pool, except for one. One seated juror who was tasked with deciding Mr. Jones’s culpability and fate told another seated juror, “They should just take the n—r out and shoot him behind the jail.”
These remarks are rooted in our nation’s history of racial terror lynchings. EJI has documented nearly 6,500 racial terror lynchings in America between 1865 and 1950, and it was not uncommon for Black people to be abducted from jail and shot “out back.”
In Okemah, Oklahoma, a Black woman named Laura Nelson and her teenaged son, L.D., were kidnapped from custody before they could stand trial on murder charges. Members of the mob forcibly removed them from the jail and hanged them from a bridge over the Canadian River. The mob presumed Ms. Nelson and her son were guilty and stripped them of due process, deciding that a trial was not worth anyone’s time.
The juror who used the n-word to refer to Mr. Jones and suggested that he should be lynched explicitly said that the trial was “a waste of time.” He voted to convict and execute Mr. Jones, but when the other juror told the judge about these comments, the judge tolerated the remarks and never disclosed them to Mr. Jones’s lawyers. They were concealed until 2017, and even though Mr. Jones’s appeals lawyers filed numerous pleadings, no court has reviewed the merits of this claim because of procedural bars.
After Mr. Jones’s case was featured in an ABC documentary in 2018, millions of people signed a petition in support of Mr. Jones and a number of high-profile supporters joined the effort to get his sentence commuted.
Gov. Kevin Stitt will make the final decision whether to commute Mr. Jones’s death sentence.
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor has asked the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals for an execution date for Mr. Jones as early as November 18.