Julius Jones
A screenshot from the ABC docu-series The Last Defense shows Julius Jones upon his arrest for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell. (Screenshot)

(Update: On Monday, Oct. 25, Judge Stephen Friot denied the request for a stay discussed in the article below. The decision was immediately appealed, causing Julius Jones’ clemency hearing to be postponed until 9 a.m. Monday, Nov. 1. On Wednesday, Oct. 27, an appellate court granted stays in the executions of Julius Jones and John Marion Grant. The article below remains in its original form.)

Julius Jones, who is on death row for the 1999 murder of Edmond resident Paul Howell, will appear in front of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board for a clemency hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 26. The hearing marks his final chance to be taken off death row.

Jones has always maintained his innocence, and his case has attracted national and celebrity attention in recent months. His execution is scheduled for Nov. 18.

Though the clemency hearing will be the last chance for Jones to have his sentence changed, recent developments in a longstanding lawsuit regarding Oklahoma’s death-penalty procedures could delay the executions of Jones and others scheduled to be put to death in coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the board that will hear the clemency case has been under fire from Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, who have tried to get two board members disqualified from hearing Jones’ case, saying they have a political conflict of interest.

As Julius Jones’ final hearing approaches, here’s where things stand.

Clemency hearing procedures

At the hearing Tuesday, Jones will have 20 minutes to make his case in front of the board, as will members of Howell’s family. Lawyers representing Jones and state prosecutors will each have 40 minutes to address the board, with the option to reserve some of the time for rebuttal.

In Jones’ petition seeking clemency from the board, he maintains his innocence. He claims he had inadequate council and that the jury never heard potentially exculpatory evidence during the trial. He also argues that racial bias played a role in his conviction.

“These and other systemic failures led to Julius’s wrongful conviction,” the petition says. “They are the very same failures that were identified in the 2017 bipartisan report of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission as creating ‘the unacceptable risk of executing the innocent.’”

In a commutation hearing in September, the Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 to recommend Jones’ sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole. Voting in favor were Chairman Adam Luck, Vice Chairman Larry Morris and member Kelly Doyle. In dissent was member Richard Smothermon, who expressed concern about “misconduct” violations Jones has received in prison.

The board’s recommendation went to Gov. Kevin Stitt, who declined to commute Jones’ sentence and said the clemency will provide a better examination of the situation.

“I am not accepting the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation to commute the sentence of Julius Jones because a clemency hearing, not a commutation hearing, is the appropriate venue for our state to consider death row cases,” Stitt said in a letter to the board.

Courts could delay executions

Before Jones’ Tuesday hearing, the Western District Court of Oklahoma is scheduled to hear a motion at 9 a.m. Monday that could stay the executions of Jones and others scheduled to be put to death.

The motion stems from a 2014 lawsuit brought by more than 30 Oklahoma death-row inmates arguing that the state’s lethal-injection protocol is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit was filed after the 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett, who suffered a slow, painful death when a drug that had not been used for executions in Oklahoma before was improperly administered. Executions in the state were put on hold the next year when a second man was executed using a drug that was not approved by state protocol.

During a hearing of the suit, former Attorney General Mike Hunter told the U.S. district court that the state would not move forward with executing the plaintiffs until the lawsuit was resolved.

However, a district court ruled in August that six inmates, including Jones, should be dropped from the lawsuit because they failed to pick an alternative method for their own executions, citing moral and religious prohibitions against “being complicit in their own deaths in a way that they believe would be akin to suicide or assisting suicide,” according to a motion filed Wednesday.

Execution dates for Jones and the others who had been dismissed — John Marion Grant, Wade Lay, Donald Grant, Gilbert Postelle and James Coddington — were set shortly after. Bigler Stouffer, another inmate scheduled for execution, was not a part of the lawsuit.

Then, on Oct. 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit  ruled that the six men should not have been dismissed from the suit, which is scheduled to go to trial in February.

The ruling said, “The district court abused its discretion in certifying its judgment as final,” according to court documents reported by News9.

Monday’s pending motion was filed by Jones, Postelle, and John and Donald Grant. It argues the appellate court judgement restores them to the status of plaintiffs in the suit, with no final judgement reached and the possibility of appeals ahead of them. It requests a stay of execution based on Hunter’s promise to not proceed with executions until the case is finalized.

“The October 15th decision of the Court of Appeals and the state’s refusal to honor its agreement to not hold executions before a plaintiff’s case is complete (and thus appealable) necessitates this emergency plea for relief from this
court,” the motion reads.

A transcript of a May 2020 hearing records U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot commenting on Hunter’s pledge regarding execution dates.

“I had the representation last March from none other than the attorney general of Oklahoma that that would not happen,” Friot said. “And if we should have any indication that that will happen, I will be, to put it mildly, immediately available, so it’s not necessary to address that.”

Hunter resigned from office in May, and Stitt appointed O’Connor to replace him in July.

If the federal court stays the executions pending the resolution of the lawsuit, Jones’ clemency hearing on Tuesday would be delayed because a clemency hearing cannot occur unless an execution is officially schedule.

Prater, O’Connor attempt to disqualify Parole Board members

Last Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court denied Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater’s second application to disqualify Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle from Jones’ hearing. Prater claims the two are biased because of their work with inmates on criminal justice reform and Luck’s amplification of a tweet that referenced the “Justice for Julius” movement.

“Both Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle engage in political activities that work to release inmates from prison, all of which makes their board decisions, at the very least, have an appearance of impropriety,” Prater wrote in his motion.

Prater has pointed to Luck and Doyle’s work with the Center for Economic Opportunities, a national nonprofit that matches people leaving prison with jobs. Luck serves on the CEO board. Until September 2020, Doyle worked as CEO’s deputy executive director for central and midwest regions before shifting to a “special projects” role.

Prater’s first request was denied days before Jones’ commutation hearing.

Soon after last week’s second ruling, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor filed a similar request with the Supreme Court, saying Luck and Doyle should be disqualified for the hearings in Jones’ case and Stouffer’s. Stouffer’s execution date is scheduled for Dec. 9. His clemency hearing is scheduled for Oct. 27.

“The attorney general has a disqualification motion pending before the Supreme Court regarding Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle, so I don’t believe it appropriate to comment,” Prater said in a statement to NonDoc about the court’s rejection of his motion. “In our case, the Supreme Court did not file an opinion with the dismissal. Therefore, I do not know the court’s reasoning; nor will I speculate.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court is scheduled to hold a hearing for O’Connor’s request on Monday as well.