Julius Jones: Oklahoma recommends taking man off death row weeks before execution, citing ‘inherently wrong’ case

, Julius Jones: Oklahoma recommends taking man off death row weeks before execution, citing ‘inherently wrong’ case, The Evepost BBC News
, Julius Jones: Oklahoma recommends taking man off death row weeks before execution, citing ‘inherently wrong’ case, The Evepost BBC News

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended 3-to-1 on Monday that death row inmate Julius Jones’s upcoming execution should be stopped. The vote comes just weeks before he was set to be killed via lethal injection as the state restarts its controversial execution program, six years after a series of bungled executions.

“Ordinarily during a parole hearing, we are charged with the responsibility of giving the inmates some choices about their future,” board member Larry Morris said, as the panel announced its recommendation, which will now go to the Oklahoma governor for a final decision.

“In this particular case, it’s been stepped up a notch,” he added, saying their vote decides “whether or not this young man even has a future.”

The high-profile inmate, scheduled to be executed on 18 November, should instead get a life sentence with the possibility of parole for his conviction in the 1999 murder of businessman Paul Howell in the Oklahoma City suburbs, the board concluded.

Outside the Pardon and Parole Board offices, supporters of Jones clad in “Justice for Julius” t-shirts and face masks hugged in celebration as they listened to a feed of the hearing.

“The Pardon and Parole Board has now twice voted in favor of commuting Julius Jones’s death sentence, acknowledging the grievous errors that led to his conviction and death sentence,” Jones’s public defender, Amanda Bass, said in a statement following the decision. “We hope that [Oklahoma] Governor [Kevin] Stitt will exercise his authority to accept the Board’s recommendation and ensure that Oklahoma does not execute an innocent man.”

Madeline Davis-Jones, Julius’s mother, said she was grateful for the board’s ruling, but that more work needed to be done to get her son off death row.

“I feel good but we still got more steps to go,” she told reporters outside the hearing room. “I just thank God and I thank the people of Oklahoma. I thank God and bless the Parole Board and God. I feel good, good all over.”

The Howell family, meanwhile, condemned the Board’s choice.

“We’re saddened that our tragedy has been used by so many that choose to assume, without any fact-checking whatsoever, the worst of jurors, law enforcement, and the prosecutors, who bravely and tirelessly has sought justice for Paul and our family,” Paul Howell’s brother Bill told reporters.

The Oklahoma governor’s office confirmed to The Independent it was aware of the panel’s recommendation, but Mr Stitt hasn’t yet shared a decision in the politically charged case.

The Parole Board’s decision marks the biggest moment yet for the growing Justice for Julius Movement, which seeks to free Jones from death row, after the man has spent two decades proclaiming his innocence. The campaign, once the quiet concern of a handful of family members and local activists, has now attracted a significant following around the country, including from celebrities like Kim Kardashian and viewers of a widely seen 2018 ABC documentary called The Last Defense, produced by actress Viola Davis.

The Parole Board’s decision comes just days after Oklahoma was cleared by the US Supreme Court to resume executions after six years, despite an ongoing legal appeal from inmates, including Jones, that argues the state is still using the same, unconstitutionally cruel execution protocol responsible for multiple botched killings in 2014 and 2015.

Jones has maintained for years he did not murder Mr Howell, while the Howell family and state law enforcement officials insist that police and a succession of trials and appeals courts correctly determined that Jones committed the crime.

Julius Jones’s case has been reviewed across numerous forums involving 13 different judges, and proceedings at the state, federal, and US Supreme Court level. What distinguished Monday’s hearing was who got to tell their side of the story.

The Howell family, until a few months ago, has largely kept out of the public eye since Paul Howell’s killing, and Jones hasn’t his ever shared his version of events in person in a legal forum before state officials, after his public defence team advised him not to testify during his original trial.

, Julius Jones: Oklahoma recommends taking man off death row weeks before execution, citing ‘inherently wrong’ case, The Evepost BBC News

Jones, appearing at the hearing via video in a prison uniform, described how he began stealing things like electronics as a teenager to afford the luxuries his lower-middle-class family never had, but said those mistakes, and the rough crowd he eventually fell in with, don’t make him a murderer.

“I have experienced profound sorrow, even despair, as a result of Mr Howell’s death, and am facing execution for something I didn’t do,” he told the small in-person audience at the hearing, which included his mother and sister, as well as a gaggle of reporters. “I truly wish Mr Howell was alive today. I wish I could turn back time. I wish I had made better decisions in my youth. I can’t do any of that. What I can do is try to make the world better.” As Jones told it, he learned about the murder after the fact, once the “whirlwind” of police investigations commenced. When he was eventually charged with the murder, he said his lawyers, a pair of attorneys inexperienced in capital cases, advised him not to take the stand, a decision he disagreed with but felt bound to follow.

“I thought I was going to testify and explain exactly to the jury where I was at, what I did and didn’t do,” Jones said. “I felt trapped. When [a judge] asked me if it was my choice not to testify, I told him, ‘Yes, it was my choice,’ but in reality I was just following my lawyer’s advice. I’m here to tell you what I never to to tell the jury during my trial.”

The Howells, meanwhile, said they were sure that Jones had pulled the trigger on 28 July, slaying Paul Howell in front of his young children during a carjacking in the driveway of his parents’ house.

“He still feels no shame, guilty, or remorse for his actions,” Megan Tobey, Paul Howell’s sister, said in the hearing room on Monday, comparing Jones to a sociopath. “It’s hurtful and we are continually being revictimised. We need this to end for our family. We need Julius Jones to be held responsible.”

Ms Tobey also pushed back against an argument that’s been made in a number of forums by Jones’s defense team: that jurors weren’t shown contemporaneous pictures of Jones and Chris Jordan, his co-defendant in the carjacking murder, which would’ve help establish which young man in a stocking cap Tobey saw approach the driver’s side door with a raised pistol. At the time, Jordan had cornrows that stuck out from his head, while Jones had close-cropped hair.

“What I realised is there is no way cornrows could’ve been under the tight-fitting black stocking cap the murderer was wearing, or I would’ve noticed,” she added.

The entire process that sent Julius Jones to death row was rotten with “systemic flaws,” from a police investigation reliant on compromised informants, to a trial with a biased and under-informed jury and poor legal representation, Jones’s defence team argued.

“The criminal justice system failed Mr Howell,” Ms Bass, Jones’s public defender, said during her opening arguments. “It also failed Julius Jones because it condemned him to death for something he didn’t do.”

Ms Bass pointed out a number of perceived flaws with case. Jurors, for example, didn’t know that two of the state’s key witnesses had a record of being professional informants for Oklahoma City police. And Jones’s lawyer made things even worse, Bass argued, failing to call a single witness in Jones’s defence, or offer up the Jones family’s alibi that Julius was at home during the murder.

“The Attorney General’s office has no good answer to the evidence of Julius Jones’s innocence,” she said. “They simply ignore things they cannot explain.”

Morris, the board member, pointed out how Jones’s co-defendant in the murder case, Chris Jordan, only served 15 years in prison, what the board member called an “inherently wrong” facet of the case that put Julius Jones on death row.

Kelly Doyle, another board member, said she agreed, with questionable aspects of the case suggesting “the ultimate punishment should not be utilized” against Julius Jones.

The decision isn’t exactly a surprise. The Board recommended commuting Jones’s sentence in September, the first time it had done so for a death row inmate in state history.

What’s different now are the stakes. Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt, who supports capital punishment as a whole, said he wanted to wait until the more full clemency hearing to render a final decision about Jones’s execution. Other state officials, like Oklahoma’s attorney general and the district attorney of Oklahoma County, home to Oklahoma City, have both pushed for Jones’s execution.

The Independent has reached out to the governor’s office, Oklahoma attorney general’s office, and Oklahoma City District Attorney’s office for comment.