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

Julius Jones has maintained his innocence for decades, and came to attract a large movement of justice activists behind his case

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Monday 01 November 2021 22:42 GMT
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The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended three-to-one that death row inmate Julius Jones’ 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 on Monday, 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. The board made a similar recommendation in September, a first in state history, as part of the death row commutation process.

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

“I feel like the right decision was made. After having this happen two times, that should compel our governor to want to go with the recommendation of life with the possibility of parole,” Jabee Williams, a friend of the Jones family and Justice for Julius activist, told The Independent. “Everybody’s happy but we’re still definitely mindful there’s a family that is probably going through a tough time right now. Everybody is definitely praying and lifting up the whole Howell family.”

Jones’ attorneys also praised the outcome. Julius is out of legal appeals, and clemency is the final forum through which he could get off death row.

“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, Jones’ 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. He has previously said he would wait until the clemency hearing to decide what to do about Jones’ execution.

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.

Jones’ 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 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.

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. He was 19 at the time of the murder.

“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.” Jones, now 41, having spent half his life on death row, says if he’s offered clemency, he hopes to be a mentor for young people and help them avoid the criminal legal system.

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 re-victimised. 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’ 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 during the appeal

“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, nor was a juror who allegedly called Jones a racial slur and said they wished he was shot removed from the court, nor that multiple people said they heard Jordan confess to the crime in prison. And Jones’s lawyer made things even worse, Bass argued, failing to call a single witness in Jones’ defence, or offer up the Jones family’s alibi that Julius was at home during the murder.

Despite these alleged issues, Oklahoma officials have continued to push for Jones’s execution, even as he and others challenge the constitutionality of the process that will be used to execute him.

“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.”

The attorney general’s office, however, argued that it is Jones, his legal team, and their legions of supporters around the country who are being selective about information.

They note that not long before the Howell murder, Jones was suspected in a number of violent robberies of cars, electronics, and jewelry, and plead guilty to a number of offenses including concealing stolen property, larceny, and an armed carjacking not long before Paul Howell was killed. (Jones asserted at the hearing he didn’t commit the carjacking, but plead guilty because he felt it was the best option at the time, given the advice of his lawyers.)

“Julius Jones is lying when he says he has never been violent,” an official from the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office said on Monday in the hearing. “The narrative Jones and his defence team have fed the media is absolutely false.”

Prosecutors also played tape of a recording of Jones’s original defence attorney discussing how it would’ve been “suicide” to put Jones on the stand, given perceived inconsistencies with his alibi.

One member of the Pardon and Parole Board, former prosecutor Richard Smothermon, aligned with these arguments and voted against recommending clemency and a commuted death sentence.

“You have to disbelieve every other piece of evidence in the case,” he said. “Law enforcement, independent witnesses, and the physical evidence. You have to believe his version over every other piece of evidence, and I am very concerned that‘s a near impossibility.”

The murder weapon, for example, was found in Jones’ attic, wrapped in a bandanna that was a likely match to Jones’s DNA. (Jones contends that Jordan, who slept over following the murder for the first time, planted the gun and wrapped it in the bandanna, which he has denied, and that the DNA evidence is inconclusive).

A final, key theme of Monday’s appeal, and the entire Justice for Julius campaign, is the alleged role systemic racism played in the prosecution that put Julius on death row. Oklahoma has executed the third most people in modern American history and has one of the highest Black incarceration rates in the country, with the bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Comission finding in 2017 that bias plays a role throughout the execution process in the state. The killing, of a successful suburban white man by urban Black teens, was a sensation at the time, the height of the “Tough on Crime” era in US popular culture and politics.

Paul Howell’s family said they weren’t being racist calling for Jones to be executed, but rather that they feared for their own safety.

“This isn’t about race,” Rachel Howell, Paul’s daughter, said during the hearing. “It isn’t about Black or white...What if this was your family member that was murdered, all for a car mind you? This is terrifying.”

Ultimately, Mr Morris, the board member, said little about how he reached his decision, but 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.

The Jones case, on a certain level, relies on state officials and the public at large to determine the value of a human life. What is to be done when one is taken by murder? How certain should Oklahoma be that it has the right person before it takes another in the execution chamber? Will one killing, then another, ever amount to true justice? Which lives deserve redemption, and which are beyond forgiveness?

For supporters of Jones, they’re hoping that Governor Stitt, who has made much of his pro-life bona fides on issues of abortion, extends the same sensitivity to an expansive conception of life to Julius Jones.

“We are thrilled with the outcome from today’s clemency hearing,” the Oklahoma NAACP told The Independent. “It is imperative that Governor Stitt holds his end of the bargain when he said he will make a decision based on the clemency hearing. We would like to encourage him to make an informed decision on the basis of Julius’s life.”

The case has left the realm of legal argument now. The facts have been argued exhaustively. Now it’s up to one man to decide what Julius Jones, his past and his future, is worth to everyone else.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

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