Julius Jones commutation case moves forward, Pardon and Parole Board votes in favor of further review
The state Pardon and Parole Board on Monday voted to further review the commutation application of Julius Jones, a death row inmate who claims he was framed for murder and whose cause has been taken up by celebrities and criminal justice reform advocates across the country.
In a critical first-stage vote that was streamed publicly via Zoom, the board voted 3-1 to move the case to the second stage, where the board will decide whether to recommend commutation and pass the case on to Gov. Kevin Stitt for a final decision.
Voting in favor were Acting Chair Adam Luck and board members Kelly Doyle and Larry Morris. Casting the lone vote against Jones’ application was Allen McCall.
The board has five seats but former Chairman Robert Gilliland resigned in December because of health issues. Gilliland died in February. The governor is expected to appoint a replacement as early as this week.
The highly anticipated Jones decision — recorded without board commentary during a “jacket review” of commutation applications from hundreds of inmates — came in the midst of widespread debate over claims of institutional racism in the U.S. criminal justice system leading to the deaths of people of color in police custody and miscarriages of justice in court.
Supporters of Jones, who is Black, have sought to characterize his conviction for the fatal shooting of a "white and prominent businessman" as another example of a criminal justice system that harms people of color.
During an afternoon news conference at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Antoinette Jones, Julius Jones’ sister, said her brother was home the night Howell was murdered and “nowhere near the scene of the crime.”
She said her brother sounded calm, upbeat and focused during a conversation earlier in the day, but the family has endured “a long, hellish nightmare.”
As the case moves to a second phase and possibly to Stitt’s desk, Antoinette Jones said learning of the board’s initial decision Monday “was almost like you’re ready for the playoffs, so you have to stay focused.”
Dale Baich, Jones' attorney, did not comment Monday about his level of confidence in Stitt's approving the commutation, should the case ultimately land on his desk.
“We are thrilled that the board has agreed to consider the growing body of evidence that Julius is innocent, and convinced that any fair and impartial review of the facts of the case will result in the commutation of his sentence and his release from prison,” Baich said in a statement.
Attorney General Mike Hunter said he was disappointed in the decision.
“The three members who voted in favor of moving Jones to stage two did not apply objective standards to the law or the evidence,” Hunter said in a statement. “I encourage those members to go back and look at the 33-page protest letter and 849-page appendix we submitted last Monday, which completely invalidates every claim that Julius Jones is innocent. My office will continue to stand on the irrefutable facts of this case and with the family of Paul Howell by opposing Jones’ request for relief from the Pardon and Parole Board.”
Jones' stage two commutation hearing is scheduled for June, Hunter said.
Oklahoma District Attorney David Prater told the board in a letter last week that Jones claims in his commutation application that he was at home having dinner with his family on the night of the murder.
However, his lead trial attorneys once testified at an evidentiary hearing that they did not call his parents to testify to that alibi "because Jones himself told them his family was mistaken and he was not home that night," Prater wrote.
“My heart breaks for the family of Paul Howell today," Prater said in a statement Monday. "My thoughts and prayers are with them as they continue to deal with unimaginable pain.”
Millions signed a petition in support of Jones, with celebrity Kim Kardashian and prominent athletes like former University of Oklahoma star quarterback Baker Mayfield and former Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook counted among those calling for his release.
Jones, 40, faces execution for the 1999 fatal shooting of Howell, an Edmond insurance executive, during a carjacking. Howell was shot in his parents' driveway in Edmond after a back-to-school shopping trip with his daughters. Stolen was his 1997 Suburban.
Jones was 19 at the time of his arrest.
He was directly implicated at trial in the fatal shooting by his friend, Christopher Jordan.
Under a plea agreement, Jordan pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit a robbery for his role and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The lengthy and winding attempt to get Jones released from death row included a DNA test paid for by his defense.
Attorneys for Jones hoped a test on a red bandanna would exonerate him, but in 2018 a forensics lab in Virginia reported that the DNA from a stain on the red bandanna worn by the killer "matches" Jones' DNA.
In a last-minute effort, his attorneys on Friday afternoon sent the Pardon and Parole Board a sworn statement from an Arkansas inmate that another man confessed to the killing.
In the statement, a convicted robber claims Jordan "spilled his guts" about the crime in 2010 while the two were in prison together in Arkansas.
"Jordan said to me 'my co-defendant is on death row behind a murder I committed,'" the Arkansas convict, Roderick Wesley, said in the Feb. 12 statement. "He was acting like he was sorry for what he had done but he said that he was not going to jump out there and give himself up to the wolves."
Wesley also said he contacted an attorney for Jones after seeing "The Last Defense" in prison in 2020.
"Mr. Wesley is the third person to swear under oath that Christopher Jordan, the co-defendant in Mr. Jones' case, confessed to killing Paul Howell," his attorneys wrote.
Top prosecutors urged the board to deny Jones’ commutation request, and dismissed his effort as little more than “half-truths” fed to the media, including statements by convicted criminals.
Dawn Cash, top assistant to Hunter, the state attorney general, wrote to the board that Jones could have filed a post-conviction application with the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
"The State suspects that Mr. Wesley is no more credible than the other two individuals to whom Christopher Jordan allegedly confessed,” Cash wrote. “What is undeniable, however, is that Mr. Jones' DNA was found on the bandana worn by the murderer, which was wrapped around the murder weapon and found in Mr. Jones' home.”
Prior to Monday’s jacket review of commutation cases, the board discussed two late-minute issues related to the Jones case, including the late-submission of material.
In late October 2019, Luck retweeted a request by Kardashian to "please help" Jones by asking the Pardon and Parole Board to give careful and thoughtful consideration to his request for clemency.
In the Twitter thread, Luck went on to discuss the board’s processes.
In a letter last week, Prater, the Oklahoma County prosecutor, asked Luck not to vote Monday, saying, “You have publicly demonstrated your personal bias in regards to this case."
Kyle Counts, general counsel for the board, said there was no mechanism to force a recusal, because a majority could force such a move based on their disagreements with a minority member’s votes.
At Monday’s meeting, Luck said he didn’t think the retweet represented a conflict of interest in the case, and the communication on the social media platform provided clarity on the process to a wide audience.
“So accordingly, I will not be recusing myself from the case in question on the March docket,” Luck said.
The board also addressed the statement from Wesley claiming Jordan, the convicted robber, admitted to the murder.
The submission of the statement came after last Tuesday, which was the deadline for this week’s meeting. Tuesday was also the deadline for trial officials to protest any material in commutation applications, which presented another problem for the board.
Luck said the Jones case caused issues the board has not encountered before, and processes should be amended to include any supplemental application material brought forward during stage one of the commutation hearings.
“Personally, I have not considered any information submitted after the deadline for applications for the March docket,” Luck said.
Morris, one of the board members who favored moving the Jones case forward, said when dealing with people’s lives, the board should be flexible with inmates and district attorneys.
“I am not going to sit here and say, because (of) some information that I received past five o’clock on this past Friday, I’m not going to consider it because it didn’t meet a deadline,” Morris said.