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Julius Jones, a Black man, has maintained his innocence for the past 22 years while sitting on death row in an Oklahoma prison. Officials conducted his historic commutation hearing on Monday September 13.
After three hours of testimony, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board decided to recommend life with the possibility of parole in a 3-1 vote. Making history, Julius Jones has become the first death row prisoner in Oklahoma to receive a recommendation for commutation.
“I have doubts about this case. For this reason, my vote is yes to commuting the sentence to life with possibility of parole,” Chairman Adam Luck said.
Supporters rally ahead of historic vote
Standing amidst dozens of people, Rev. Cece Jones-Davis led organizers and supporters of Jones in prayer and preparation ahead of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation on Julius Jones’ commutation application.
The pre-hearing rally, which started at 8:15 a.m. outside Oklahoma City’s Tabernacle Baptist Church, represented a 22-year culmination of waiting, hoping, and fighting for the release of a Black man who has maintained his innocence in the 1999 killing of Paul Howell.
“There are times when we will pray. But sometimes we have to get up. Sometimes we have to fight. This fight is sacred. This fight is worth fighting for,” Cece Jones-Davis told supporters. She also acknowledged the Howell family.
“This fight has not been without prayers for them. Not just justice for Julius but justice for Mr. Paul Howell,” Jones-Davis said.
A jury sentenced Jones to capital punishment for allegedly murdering Paul Howell, a White man, in Edmond, Oklahoma in 1999. Edmond is an affluent majority White suburban community just north of Oklahoma City.
The Jones Family maintains Julius was home with his sister Antoinnette and their parents during the night Howell was murdered.
During the 2002 murder trial, his sister and parents weren’t given the opportunity to testify to their family member’s innocence.
The victim’s family member was, however, given the opportunity to testify before the jury. This key witness gave a physical description of the criminal’s hair, matching Jones’s friend Christopher Jordan.
While awaiting his execution, Jones has been described as a category four inmate —meaning, he has little to no risk of harming people in society.
Supporters chant “Justice for Julius”
Decked out in “Julius Jones” t-shirts and wielding flyers that read “Justice for Julius”, the crowd took a moment to thank the police escort that would guide them to their destination before going into prayer, asking God to strengthen their voices.
“Oklahoma is on the wrong side of justice again. It’s up to us to challenge an unfair and unequal system. And we will win because God is still in control,” said Garland Pruitt, a representative for the Oklahoma City chapter of the NAACP.
Tulsa native Dr. Tiffany Crutcher also attended the pre-hearing rally.
“This week marks five years since my brother Terence Crutcher was killed,” Dr. Crutcher began, reminding the world that Tulsa’s former police officer Betty Shelby murdered her brother in 2016.
“I can’t bring Terence back. But guess what. I can fight like crazy to make sure Julius Jones isn’t killed by the same system that killed Terence Crutcher.”
Dr. Crutcher said she received a text message Monday morning from Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, saying “ Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”
Rally participants march for Julius Jones
Abe Bonowitz of Death Penalty Action also spoke and called for the State of Oklahoma to free Julius today and to stop all future executions.
“It is time for us to get justice across the board,” Bonowitz said.
The rally ended with a march to Evangelistic Baptist Church, which is across the street from Jones’ commutation hearing inside the Kate Barnard Community Corrections Center.
Oklahoma continues to allow the death penalty, which is currently legal in 27 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A moratorium was placed on this practice in Oklahoma in October of 2015 due to two botched executions that took place on April 2.
All execution dates were placed on hold until the state could find a solution.
Julius Jones’ petition on Change.org now has 6.3 million signatures signed.
Commutation hearing begins with recusal of Board member
Before the Board came to a vote, Board member Scott Williams began the discussion by pushing back against Oklahoma County District Attorney Prater’s accusation that his and other members’ appearance on the Board represented a conflict of interest.
Last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court denied DA Prater’s request to remove board members Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle. He had argued that the organizations they work for made them especially inclined to support the commutation of death row prisoners.
“I’m in complete compliance” with Pardon and Parole Board regulations, Williams said at the hearing.
“I’m confident that no conflict of interest exists in this case.”
Nevertheless, he chose to voluntarily recuse himself from voting on Jones’ commutation request to ensure the hearing went forward without delay.
With his recusal, voting members were reduced from five to four. Chairman of the Board, Adam Luck, clarified that any votes that come to a tie would be considered a denial.
“This hearing is the first of its kind,” Adam Luck said. The board heard from three parties at the commutation hearing: the murder victim’s family, prosecutors with the Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office, and defense counsel for Julius Jones.
Howell family speaks to Pardon and Parole Board, seeks death penalty
“We all know Julius Jones was thoroughly tried, unanimously convicted “ and sentenced for killing my brother, said a relative of Paul Howell.
He argued that the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to review the case illustrated Jones’ guilt. He also denied that Jones was at home during the time of his murder.
“Defenders and supporters of Julius Jones have “misrepresented the facts and often lied,” Howell’s sister added. “The guilt of Julius Jones is so overwhelming we would ask the Board to see that truth, hear that truth and offer no relief to Julius Jones through these commutation hearings.”
“I was there when my brother Paul Howell was murdered,” Howell’s sister said.. “I know beyond a doubt that Julius Jones murdered my brother,” she added.
She explained how she and her family were returning home from a shopping trip when “a Black man [was] standing in the doorway, leaned over the drivers side,” she said.
In recent years, her 1999 description of the man she saw has come under scrutiny. She had claimed she saw a man with about half-inch long hair. Jones’ co-defendant, Chris Jordan, has been highlighted by Jones’ attorneys as the one who committed the murder, framing Jones.
At today’s hearing Howell’s sister said, “I did not see cornrows. Jones’ supporters have taken my description out of context.” She said Jones is still a threat to society and shouldn’t be released.
The Howell family accused Julius Jones and his family of launching a social media campaign of misconstrued facts about the case.
Following the family’s testimony, the Board members thanked them for their time and assured them they would be “heard through this process.”
Attorneys for the State speak to Parole Board, deny Jones’ claims of innocence
Before even beginning their testimony, State’s attorneys asked the Board to deny Jones’ commutation hearing outright, and to at least withdraw evidence submitted by Jones’ defense team.
“Today the Board has decided they are going to consider the application as submitted,” said Kyle Counts, General Counsel for the Pardon and Parole Board, denying Sandra Elliot’s request.
Attorney Sandra Elliot began by tearing into Jones’ alibi, which claimed that he was at home on the night of the murder. She said that he told his trial lawyer he was not at home even though his sister and parents said he was home.
Yet, Elliot used testimony from a witness that she admitted prosecutors chose not to place on the stand in earlier trials because of inconsistent statements. She claims the witness heard directly from Jones that he wasn’t home during the killing.
Prosecutor strikes at defense’s alibi
“They want to claim that he had ineffective trial counsel.” Elliot said. “They didn’t offer that alibi because they knew that we could destroy that alibi,” she added.
She continued by claiming that Jones was part of a ring of carjackers. Her witnesses included convicted felons who Jones’ defense team claims would’ve been willing to say anything to lessen their own sentences.
“We can’t have all of the crimes that are committed be committed in front of Roman Catholic priests or Baptist ministers,” attorney Elliot said, defending the witnesses used in her argument.
Prosecutor wants Parole Board to believe State’s witnesses, ignore defense team’s witnesses
She also attempted to shoot down Jones’ claims that racism was involved in his case. She said his defense team is attempting to use her previous comments against her.
“He says that I was racializing him because I was saying he was a continuing threat to society, and that he was out prowling the streets looking for crimes to commit.”
She then detailed alleged crimes committed by Jones as a teenager to defend her previous statement.
“He was a young man who had been involved in a long escalating process of criminal violence,” Elliot argued before the Board. She later claimed that Julius Jones’ tattoos in prison provide evidence that he was never innocent.
Ultimately, she centered her argument around DNA evidence belonging to Jones on the red bandana found in Jones’ possession. Jones’ defense team has long-argued that co-defendant Chris Jordan placed a gun and bandana in his room the night he spent the night at Jones’ house.
Board questions prosecutor
Board member Kelly Doyle had a question about why the prosecutors deemed witnesses with convicted felons credible when the State used them for the prosecution.
“What process did you go through with the first two in the trial to deem them credible? Were they given polygraphs? How were they deemed credible,” Doyle asked.
“All the way through they told a consistent story,” Elliot responded.
Meanwhile, the prosecutor asked the Board to ignore the testimony of convicted felon Roderick Wesley.
After seeing a documentary about Julius Jones, Arkansas inmate Roderick Wesley claims that he recognized co-defendant Christopher Jordan. Wesley said he recalled a conversation in which Jordan remorsefully admitted to the killing.
Wesley, who supposedly had contact with Jordan during an interstate prison transfer, signed an affidavit declaring Jordan told him Jones was innocent and that Jordan was the real killer, according to a report from The Frontier published earlier this year.
Julius Jones’ defense lawyer, supporters argue on his behalf at commutation hearing
Julius Jones’ lawyer Amanda Bass spoke next at the hearing.
“We’re grateful for you all hearing what we have to say about Julius’s wrongful conviction,” she began.
“We are troubled by what happened that day and the unfathomable suffering,” that the Howell family has endured. “We desire only justice. And justice will not be achieved by executing an innocent man.”
Bass said Jones’ case represented a breakdown in the justice system, which she said included inexperienced, under resourced and overworked counsel, junk science, racial prejudice and prosecutorial misconduct.
“The question this honorable Board must answer is what does justice look like,” Bass added.
“The state has spent much of its presentation talking about not the merits of his case but rather allegations that he was a violent thuggish criminal prior to Howell’s death.”
She questioned the State’s reliance on testimony from Chris Jordan, who was also seeking to lessen his own sentence during his cooperation with prosecutors.
Bass reminded Board members of a 2003 interview with Chris Jordan, in which Bass says details a plan from prosecutors to threaten to prosecute Jordan for a string of robberies unless he cooperated with their case against Jones.
A finger print analysis eliminated Julius as a suspect in numerous robberies that prosecutors used to build a case against Jones in the Paul Howell murder trial.
Defense lawyer strikes at prosecution’s claims
“The state’s position both overstates and oversimplifies” the test results of DNA on the red banana. She said a partial profile of the DNA showed that Julius couldn’t be excluded but that it wasn’t solid proof that the DNA belonged to him.
She said the DNA testing didn’t meet FBI standards.
“The jury never heard evidence that Julius was at home with his family” when Mr. Howell was shot and killed, Bass argued.
“The jury also never knew that two of the state’s key witnesses…were not just people with prior felony convictions but were professional, confidential informants for the Oklahoma County and Edmond police,” Bass added.
Four people have come forward in recent years agreeing that co-defendant Chris Jordan framed Julius Jones, bragging about making a deal with prosecutors to get out of prison after only 15 years.
Defense calls out prosecution’s double standard
“They argue that these people have felony convictions and aren’t believable. And yet at the same time has asked you to credit the testimony of its central witnesses, all of whom were convicted felons and informants themselves,” Bass said.
“We also know that systemic race prejudice” played a role, Bass said. She pointed to a sworn statement from a juror who said they heard another juror use the n-word and call for a lyncing outside the courtroom. She also called attention to a death penalty report which highlighted racial disparities.
In Oklahoma, state prosecutors are more likely to call for the death penalty in a crime where the victim is White and less likely to call for it in when the victim is an ethnic minority, according to a 2017 report from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.
Titled “Race and Death Sentencing for Oklahoma Homicides Committed Between 1990 and 2012,” the report analyzed more than 4,600 homicide cases and found that cases with a White female, White male, or minority female victim are more likely to involve the death penalty than cases with a minority male victim.
“We ask this board to do justice here by commuting Julius’ death sentence to time served or, alternatively, to life with the possibility of parole.” Bass said, ending her arguments.
Oklahoma legislator speaks in support of Julius Jones
“It is my opinion that Julius’ legal defense team at trial should have faced serious discipline for their admitted negligence, their failure to investigate, and then present relevant evidence or call a single witness. I believe this very strongly,” said Kelly Masters, an attorney Julius Jones had requested to speak on her behalf.
Oklahoma state Senator George Young spoke last in support of Julius Jones.
“Julius spent his time with me not trying to convince me to correct any misinformation but he just wanted to share his desire to be an asset to those whose lives he can positively impact,” said Sen. Young. He added that Jones’ incarnation hasn’t made him bitter but instead better.
“This young man has moved from being a player to a coach,” Young said, explaining how in a two-hour hour conversation with Jones, Young learned that Jones wants to use the rest of his life to help and serve others.
Board asks final questions before vote
Following the closing of testimony, Board member Richard Smothermon had a question.
“One of the things that has troubled me in this is the fact that until the two of you spoke I knew very little about Julius jones the person. Would it be beneficial to this board to have heard from him today?” Smothermon asked.
Sen Young and attorney Kelly Masters both said yes.
Another board member asked for clarification about what defense lawyer Amanda Bass called “junk science”.
The State had used a forensic expert who testified that it was scientifically possible to show that the bullets that killed Mr. Howell came from the same batch of bullets found at Jones’ parents home or that the bullets came from the same gun found at their home. Bass said that claim was not scientifically accurate.
Pardon and Parole Board Chairman Adam Luck then asked why the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals denied Jones’ previous appeals.
Amanda Bass responded, clarifying that since the ineffective counsel never brought up numerous issues during the trial process, such as a racist juror, once it came to the Appeals Court, the standards for review were limited.
Board makes recommendation
More than three hours after starting the historic commutation hearing, the Pardon and Parole Board returned from a 15-minute recess to make their recommendation.
“We are not a court. We’re not a jury,” Chairman Adam Luck said before voicing his vote.
“I have doubts about this case. For this reason my vote is yes to commuting the sentence to life with possibility of parole.”
Board member Larry Morris also voted to commute Jones’ death sentence to life.
Next, Board member Kelly Doyle voted yes saying, “Mr. Jones was 19 at the crime. What we know about brain science now…was not fully understood science 20 years ago. I, too believe there is doubt.”
Board member Richard Smothermon expressed regret over not being able to speak to Jones himself before voting no.
However, with three yes votes, Julius Jones’ commutation request for life with the possibility of parole now goes to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt for his final decision.
“Commutation is recommended,” a secretary for the Board said, concluding the meeting.
Meanwhile, prayers from supporters outside the facility appeared to have been answered. Governor Stitt is now responsible for the fate of Julius Jones. He can choose to agree with the recommendation or deny it.
“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,” spokesperson Carly Atchison said in a statement to the Associated Press. “We will not have any further comment until the governor has made a decision.”