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A week after the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board approved its first ever recommendation for commutation for death row inmate Julius Jones, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has scheduled an execution date on November 18.
On Monday, September 13, the state’s Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 to recommend commutation for Jones, who has maintained his innocence for 22 years in a case his family and lawyers say was tainted by racism, an ineffective council, and prosecutorial misconduct.
Yet, amidst the scheduled commutation hearing, the Oklahoma Attorney General had requested execution dates for Jones and six other detainees on death row. On Monday, September 20, a week after the Pardon and Parole Board sent a historic recommendation for commutation of Jones’ sentence to the Governor’s desk, the Court responded to AG O’Connor’s request.
Governor Stitt holds final decision on commutation request
Acknowledging Jones’ commutation recommendation, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals stated, “this Court’s duty to set a date certain is dictated” by law. The November 18 execution date would make Julius Jones the second detainee scheduled to be killed by the State this year. He was convicted of killing Edmond man Paul Howell in 1999 during a carjacking.
His defense team, however, has argued that a co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, who made a deal with prosecutors, framed Jones and admitted his own guilt to other inmates in recent years.
Ultimately, Governor Kevin Stitt holds the decision on Jones’ fate. He can choose to accept the Board’s recommendation and commute Jones’ sentence to life with the possibility of parole. He can also choose to deny the commutation.
Supporters urge the governor to act
With the November 18 execution date set in stone, Governor Stitt has only weeks to decide.
After the Court’s announcement, Rev. Cece Jones-Davis, a leader of the “Justice for Julius” movement, released a statement.
“The court’s setting of an execution date underscores the stakes and the urgency involved with Julius Jones’ commutation application. After a thorough review and a multiple-hour hearing, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3 to 1 to commute Julius’s sentence to life,” Jones-Davis said.
“We urge Governor Stitt to review the application in a timely manner and bring long-averted justice to this very tragic situation by accepting the recommendation of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.”
Meanwhile, 6 in 10 Oklahomans support commutation of his death sentence to life, according to a recent poll from Amber Integrated.
State’s attorneys have used multiple tactics to stall, deny commutation
That hasn’t stopped attorneys for the state from unleashing a campaign of obstruction throughout the commutation process. Oklahoma isn’t used to having its Pardon and Parole Board recommend anything other than death. So, when the Board voted back in March to send Jones’ case to the second stage of review, prosecutors for the State weren’t pleased.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater for months has attempted to silence and remove members of the Pardon and Parole Board whom he accused of holding conflicts of interests.
In the Spring, he sued the Board and Governor Stitt, challenging their ability to conduct unbiased work. On the eve of the September commutation hearing, DA Prater asked the Supreme Court to block two board members from participating in the hearing.
The Court declined, but the intimidation appeared to somewhat succeed during the hearing. Pardon and Parole Board member Scott Williams, one of two African Americans on the five-person board, chose to recuse himself from the process to eliminate suspicion.
Execution date set despite pending lawsuit on protocol
Oklahoma hasn’t put a citizen to death since 2015, when killings were halted after a series of botched executions. Yet, the State appears primed and ready to wield the God-like power of choosing life and death for some of its residents.
The scheduled execution date comes even as the State remains in litigation over the use of a specific drug during executions. Whether Oklahoma’s execution protocol is constitutional hasn’t even been decided. A 2022 hearing will make that determination.
Dale Baich is an assistant federal public defender for Julius Jones and other death row inmates.
“We are concerned that the court set these [execution] dates when it knows that unresolved questions about Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol remain pending in the federal district court,” Baich said.
“To allow executions to proceed when there is a chance the federal court could find a constitutionally unacceptable risk that a person could suffer because of the drug combination used, is deeply troubling.”
Oklahoman voters’ support for the death penalty is without question, yet Jones has navigated through the very system State attorneys work in, achieving a historic recommendation for commutation.
In a letter to the Pardon and Parole Board, Jones previously said, “I am not the only young Black male whose public defenders were overmatched, whose juries were biased, who were chewed up and spit out by a system that packs our prisons with people who look just like me,”
Governor Stitt has a history of commuting sentences
While the State’s attorneys appear outraged at the prospect of sparing Jones’ life, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has demonstrated in the past that he’s willing to approve commutations.
As a matter of fact, in 2019 Gov. Stitt approved the largest single day mass commutation in the nation’s history.
After Oklahoma passed a series of criminal justice reform measures in 2018 that reduced certain crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole sent recommendations for commutations of over 500 sentences.
With the stroke of his pen, Gov. Stitt approved them, setting over 400 people free in a single day.
While Gov. Stitt is known for his conservative stances, he’s also known for commuting the sentences of more prisoners than any other governor in modern history. With time running out, supporters of Julius Jones hope he’ll make history once again.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Amanda Bass, who argued on behalf of Jones at his commutation hearing said the evidence that Jones was wrongfully convicted is “powerful.”
“Given the setting of a November 18 execution date, it is our hope the Governor adopts the Board’s recommendation and commutes Julius’s death sentence. Oklahoma must not allow an innocent man to be executed,” Bass said.