Citing “doubts” about the case, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 today to recommend that Gov. Kevin Stitt commute the death sentence of Julius Jones to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Jones, who has been on death row for 22 years after being convicted in the 1999 murder of Edmond father Paul Howell, has maintained his innocence.
After hearing from Howell’s family members and Jones’ advocates for more than three hours Monday, Pardon and Parole Board Chairman Adam Luck, Vice Chairman Larry Morris and member Kelly Doyle voted to recommend the sentence commutation to Stitt.
“Personally, I believe that the death penalty and in death penalty cases, there should be no doubt. And, put simply, I have doubts about this case,” Luck said. “I cannot ignore those doubts, especially when the stakes are life and death.”
Former Pottawatomie County District Attorney Richard Smothermon voted against the recommendation, expressing concern about a recent “misconduct” violation Jones received in prison.
“We have the misconduct, and it bothers me that there was (…) one on April 29 where he tested positive,” Smothermon said. “I think we ought to be consistent, and there are going to be votes for the rest of this [week], where my vote, at least at this point without hearing from the other parties, is probably going to be ‘No’ because they have a misconduct within the past year. So I want to be careful about precedent on any case.”
To start the meeting, board member Scott Williams recused himself from the Jones hearing “out of abundance of caution” after Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater filed a motion for Williams to disqualify himself as impartial owing to professional connections with Kelli Masters, an attorney and sports agent who appeared before the board on Jones’ behalf.
Howell family, Jones attorneys speak to board
Speaking on behalf of murder victim Paul Howell were his daughter, Rachel Howell, his brothers, Brian and Bill Howell, and his sister, Megan Toby.
“Why does my trauma have to be someone’s entertainment?” Rachel Howell said, referencing The Last Defense, a docu-series that questioned Jones’ conviction. The Howell family said the documentary was unfair and traumatizing to them.
“I miss him everyday,” Rachel Howell said. “All I wish for this world is to see him again.”
Also speaking in support for Paul Howell was Sandy Elliott, a retired assistant district attorney who prosecuted Jones two decades earlier. Howell’s representatives were visibly frustrated and upset as Jones’ representatives proclaimed that he had alibis and integrity.
“If allowed to execute Julius, Oklahoma will be executing an innocent man,” said attorney Amanda Bass, who was joined in speaking on behalf of Jones by Masters and Sen. George Young (D-OKC).
Jones was not allowed to appear at Monday’s hearing, something Young told the board would have been beneficial. Young discussed Jones’ aspiration to work with youths if he is released from prison.
“I was looking at the crime and whether the punishment is deemed excessive, and there were significant aggravating factors and significant mitigating factors that need to be considered, most notably that Mr. Jones was 19 years old at the time,” Doyle said in announcing her vote.
‘The governor takes his role in this process seriously’
Jones’ commutation hearing had been scrapped late last month by the board in a special meeting Aug. 31 after Attorney General John O’Connor had requested execution dates for Jones and six other death-row inmates. The Oklahoma Court of Criminals Appeals, however, declined to approve the execution dates, thus restoring Jones’ commutation hearing.
Jones was convicted in the 1999 murder of Howell in his Edmond driveway during a carjacking. The case has received national attention owing to the docu-series, celebrity advocacy and concerns about Oklahoma’s death penalty protocols, which were halted and reformed after the botching of two executions.
Jones had previously lost multiple appeals of his conviction.
There is no timeline for Stitt to act on Jones’ commutation application.
“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,” Stitt spokesperson Carly Atchison. “We will not have any further comment until the governor has made a decision.”
The Rev. Cece Jones-Davis, a supporter of Jones, issued a statement following the board’s decision.
“We are thankful that the Pardon and Parole Board recommended Julius’ sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole. Although that recommendation means he will not be walking out a free man as soon as we hoped, Julius would be able to spend his days inside prison no longer on death row and, in the future, be eligible for parole,” Jones-Davis said. “We pray that Governor Stitt will accept this recommendation or commute his sentence to time served so that Julius is able to return home to his family for the first time in over 20 years.”
Prater tried to disqualify Doyle, Luck from hearing
Days before Jones’ commutation hearing, Prater asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to disqualify Luck and Doyle, who he said have bias and conflicts of interests on the Jones case and other cases before them. Following a Friday hearing, the court dismissed Prater’s motion.
“Notwithstanding the board’s decision Monday, I will continue to fight for Paul Howell, his family and all innocent citizens of Oklahoma,” Prater said in a statement released over the weekend. “I will take my fight for justice to the governor’s office if necessary. Truth and the rule of law must prevail in this and every case. Justice can not be subverted by money, politics or celebrity. The future of our children is far too important to let that happen.”
Brian Howell: ‘We are devastated’
Monday afternoon following the board’s decision, Prater and the Howell family held a press conference at the Oklahoma County Courthouse. Brian Howell read a lengthy statement.
“We are devastated by the decision reached today by the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board. Our family continues to be victimized by Julius Jones and his lies. Almost 20 years ago, we trusted the jury in this case and over the last 18 years, we have trusted the appellate process,” Howell said. “We had hoped against all odds that we would receive a fair hearing today. It became very apparent before the State of Oklahoma even began its argument that the Pardon and Parole Board had no intention of following its own state rules regarding the providing of false information and not relitigating facts available to the jury and reviewed by the appellate process.”
Howell concluded his statement by saying: “The truth is that 12 jurors found Julius Jones guilty of murdering Paul Howell, and that courts have reviewed that conviction for the last 18 years.”
(Update: This article was updated at 3:46 p.m. Monday, Sept. 13, to include additional comments from Brian Howell.)