Julius Jones
Members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board meet via Zoom on Monday, March 8, 2021. (Screenshot)

Julius Jones, an Oklahoma man who has spent two decades on death row after being convicted of the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, had his application for sentence commutation moved to a second stage during the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board’s Zoom meeting this morning.

Jones’ case advanced to the second of three stages on a 3-1 vote, with Larry Morris, Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle voting in favor. Board member C. Allen McCall voted against. Jones’ application will now move to a June hearing phase where Jones and his attorneys will present arguments before the board. Representatives from the Howell family can also appear before the board, which will decide whether to recommend that Gov. Kevin Stitt should commute Jones’ sentence.

Only four people voted on Monday’s decision, as prior Pardon and Parole Board Chairman Robert Gilliland resigned in December, citing health reasons. Stitt has yet to appoint a new member.

Julius Jones
Supporters of Julius Jones gather outside the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board’s office in Oklahoma City on Monday, March 8, 2021. (Andrea DenHoed)

Background on the Paul Howell murder

Jones was convicted of murdering Howell in his Edmond driveway during a carjacking. Christopher Jordan, a co-defendant in the case who testified against Jones, was also at the scene. Jones’ attorneys contend that Jordan shot Howell, but witness testimony detailing the actions of Jones and Jordan before and after the murder convinced authorities — and jurors — that Jones was the shooter.

Jones received the death penalty for the murder, along with 15 years for possession of a firearm and 25 years for conspiracy to commit a felony.

Jordan pleaded guilty to one count of murder in the first degree and one count of conspiracy to commit a felony and was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 30 years. He was released from prison in December 2014 after only serving 15 years.

Jones has previously lost several appeals, and his request for sentence commutation based on wrongful evidence appears to be his last chance to be removed from death row. One of his attorneys, Dale Baich, released a statement following Monday’s vote.

“Christopher Jordan spent years behind bars casually confessing to murder and to framing Julius,” said Dale Baich, Julius’ attorney. “It is unimaginable that the state would execute a man given that another suspect in the case confessed to the crime multiple times. 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.”

Despite conviction, Jones says he was not at scene

Julius Jones
A screenshot from the ABC docu-series The Last Defense shows Julius Jones upon his arrest 20 years ago. (Screenshot)

Since his conviction, Jones has insisted on his innocence, arguing that Jordan committed the murder. In his application for commutation, Jones says he was not at the scene and that Jordan was the only person who committed the murder. But witness testimony indicated that two men matching Jones and Jordan’s description — in a vehicle matching Jordan’s car — had followed Howell home from a restaurant. Other witnesses placed Jones with Howell’s car in the hours and days after the murder.

But Jones also claims Jordan, while awaiting trial, told other inmates that he shot Howell.

“I have spent the past 20 years on death row for a crime I did not commit, did not witness, and was not at,” Jones stated in his application for commutation. “I feel terrible for Mr. Howell and his family, but I was not responsible. I did not have a chance to tell my story to the jury at my trial because my lawyers rested the case without calling any witnesses, including my mother, father, sister and brother who would have told the jury I was home with them when this crime was committed.”

Jones’ stated alibi, however, was rejected during his trial and appellate process, with his trial attorneys even testifying at an evidentiary hearing that Jones had told them he was not with his parents the night of the murder. Another woman testified that Jones had told her he was somewhere else.

The witness testimony contradicting Jones’ commutation application claims was highlighted in a 15-page letter sent March 1 by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater to Pardon and Parole Board members.

“Over the last few years, Julius Jones and his attorneys have engaged in a coordinated and alarmingly successful campaign of misinformation, spurred by media frenzy, which is specifically targeted to manipulate and mislead the public through dissemination of half-truths and, frequently, outright lies,” Prater wrote. “I respectfully submit this letter for the one simple fact that Jones would have this board disregard: Truth matters.”

Julius Jones case receiving national attention

Jones’ case has drawn national attention over the past few years after actor Viola Davis produced the series The Last Defense, which presented alleged evidence left out of court in Jones’ case and described Jones’ defense team as “inexperienced and overwhelmed.” Celebrities and athletes such as Kim Kardashian, Baker Mayfield, Russell Westbrook and Trae Young have also publicly supported Jones’ cause.

On March 1, The Frontier reported that an inmate, Roderick Wesley, who said he served time with Jordan in an Arkansas prison, has come forward to say Jordan admitted that he killed Howell.

Wesley is currently serving a 50-year sentence for aggravated robbery in Arkansas. The Frontier reported that Welsey sent his first letter to Jones’ defense team on July 15, 2020, after watching the documentary series.

In the letter written to Amanda Bass, one of Jones’ attorneys, Wesley states that in 2009 or 2010 Jordan told him “my co-defendant is on death row behind a murder I committed.”

“At the time I didn’t think much of it, I can even recall him making statements such as, ‘I’ll fuck you up like I did that man,’” Wesley wrote in the letter. “This occurred when we would be on the basketball court and things would get heated.”

In a video provided to The Frontier, Wesley describes his and Jordan’s interactions with Jones’ attorneys Rebecca Postyeni and Dale Baich.

Hunter, Prater maintain that Jones is guilty

Prater and Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter have maintained that Jones is guilty. On March 1, Prater sent his 15-page letter to members of the Pardon and Parole Board asking them to deny Jones’ request for clemency.

In the letter, Prater lists Jones’ criminal history and disputes Jones’ suggestion that the jury was never given the opportunity to judge whether Jones fit the description of the shooter. Prater also denies Jones’ claim that Jordan was given a “secret deal” from prosecutors, calling the argument absurd.

“Jordan was not granted early release but instead served the entirety of the 30-year portion of his sentence according to the manner in which DOC calculated his credits,” Prater wrote. “He is now on probation for the rest of his life, subject to full revocation should he violate any condition of his probation. Any suggestion by Jones or his attorneys that prosecutors had a “secret deal” for him to serve less than the sentence imposed by the court is patently false.”

Prater also sent a letter to board member Adam Luck, asking him to recuse himself from the case and stating that Luck demonstrated “personal bias” in regards to the case.

After Jones’ submitted his commutation application in 2019, Luck retweeted a post from celebrity Kim Kardashian, who has been advocating for Jones’ commutation.

Luck declined to recuse himself during the Monday meeting, stating he does not believe the “communication in question constitutes a conflict of interest.”

In Luck’s 2019 tweet, he explained the three-phase process of receiving a commutation.

“I will walk through what I know as a board member, although I do not speak on behalf of the board or the governor,” he said in the tweet.

After the board meeting, Hunter released a statement criticizing the three members who voted to advance the commutation application.

“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. “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.”

Prater also released a statement Monday afternoon.

“My heart breaks for the family of Paul Howell today,” Prater said. “My thoughts and prayers are with them as they continue to deal with unimaginable pain.”

Read Julius Jones’ commutation application

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Read David Prater’s full letter to the board

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(Update: This article was updated at 1:37 p.m. Monday, Marcy 8, to include a statement from Prater.)