Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt (R) on Thursday gave mercy to Julius Jones, a man who previously faced execution later that day as punishment for a murder he says he did not commit.
Stitt’s decision came after the state’s pardon and parole board twice recommended grace for Jones, citing evidence of his innocence and his young age at the time of the crime. “Personally, I think there should be no doubt about the death penalty. And in short, I’ve in doubt about the matter, “said Chairman Adam Luck at Jones’ first mercy hearing in September.
Jones was sentenced to death for the July 28, 1999 murder of Paul Howell, who was shot as he exited his GMC Suburban in the driveway of his parents’ home. His adult sister and two young children were with him at the time. His sister later described the shooter as a black man, wearing a black stocking hat and a red bandana over his face.
After police found Howell’s stolen Suburban, two confidential informants directed police to Jones and his friend Christopher Jordan. Police first arrested Jordan, who claimed Jones was the one who had shot Howell. Bob Macy, the District Attorney at the time, promised to seek the death penalty against Jones before the indictment was formally filed.
Several members of Jones’ family remember he was home at the time of the crime. They can remember specific details about that night: playing monopoly, eating spaghetti, and how Jones’ brother kept sneaking chunks of a large chocolate cake that Jones had received as a gift for his 19th birthday days earlier.
But the jury at Jones’ trial never heard from anyone in his family about his alibi. After the lawyer who was originally assigned to Jones passed away, the court appointed three overworked public defenders, none of whom had previously had a death penalty case. Lead lawyer David McKenzie later said he was “intimidated” by the case because of his lack of experience in death penalty litigation. The second lawyer in the case had been a lawyer for a little over a year, and the third had passed the law exam the month before the award of the case.
Before the trial, Manuel Littlejohn, a man in the same prison as Jordan, told McKenzie that Jordan had admitted that it was him, not Jones, who shot Howell. Littlejohn had nothing to gain by saying this – defense attorneys, unlike prosecutors, cannot give leniency in exchange for cooperation. But McKenzie was concerned that because Littlejohn was charged with murder, jurors would not find him credible and decided not to call him as a witness.
During the trial, when it was McKenzie’s turn to present Jones’ defense, McKenzie only said, “Judge, the defense announces rest.”
“I was devastated when I heard the words’ We are resting, ‘” Jones’ sister, Antoinette Jones, said in a episode of the podcast “Wrongful Conviction.” “There was no defense there.”
The Pardon and Parole Board, which twice recommended mercy to Jones, has been the target of a series of politically motivated attacks that appear to be aimed at discouraging members from voting for Jones’ lives to be spared. Several prosecutors have unsuccessfully tried to block two board members who have expressed support for the reform of criminal justice – Luck and Kelly Doyle – from participating in Jones’ pardon case.
In one of many attacks on Luck and Doyle, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater claimed that their work in separate organizations providing services to previously incarcerated people creates a conflict of interest in considering probation and dissemination requests. Both Prater and Oklahoma’s Secretary of Justice John O’Connor unsuccessfully tried to get the state Supreme Court to block Luck and Doyle from participating in Jones’ case.
When the state Supreme Court refused to intervene, Prater said requested a major jury trial of the Pardon and Probation Board, a step Stitt described as “the latest political stunt to intimidate the Pardon and Parole Board and obstruct the constitutional process as high-profile cases being prosecuted by his office are considered.”
The judge who approved the grand jury request, Ray Elliott, is married to Sandra Elliott, who pursued Jones’ case during the trial and who represented the Prater in his bid to the Supreme Court of the State.
Yet, on September 13, almost two years after Jones submitted his application for mediation, the Pardon and Parole Board was voted 3-1 to recommend it his death sentence is commuted to life with the possibility of parole. The state planned Jones’ execution date shortly after, which triggered a pardon process similar to the mediation process that Jones had already begun.
The board held Jones’ pardon hearing on Nov. 1. He got 20 minutes to speak to the board, “the first chance I’ve had in over 20 years to talk about what happened and where I was the night Mr. Paul Howell was senselessly murdered,” Jones said.
“I want to be aware of two things. Firstly, I feel for the Howell family and for the tragic loss of Mr. Paul Howell, who I have heard was a caring and versatile good person and father. Secondly, I am not the person responsible for taking Mr. Howell’s life. “
Howell’s sister Megan Tobey, who witnessed the shooting, also spoke at the hearing. She accused Jones about being a “sociopath” responsible for “an execution-like murder” and said “we need this to end for our family.”
For the second time, the board voted 3-1 to spare Jones from execution and turn his sentence into life with the possibility of parole.
That Jones came as close to being killed as he was was the result of a gloomy legal technical character. Jones, along with dozens of others on the death row in Oklahoma, is part of an ongoing lawsuit over whether the state’s protocol on lethal injection violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The trial is expected to begin in early 2022.
Oklahoma’s execution protocol for three drugs – midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride – is the same combination of drugs used in the notoriously forged execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014. Both men who have been executed in Oklahoma since Lockett – Charles Warner in 2015 and John Marion Grant last month – showed visible signs of suffering when they died. Warner’s autopsy revealed he had been killed with the wrong combination of drugs, a mistake that was almost repeated on Richard Glossip in 2015, before his execution was called off at the last minute.
In May 2020, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot, who is leading the lethal injection trial, said he had received insurance from then-Attorney General Mike Hunter that the state would not seek execution dates until the trial is over. But three months later, when Friot ruled that the case could go to court, he dismissed six plaintiffs from the case, claiming that they had not sufficiently offered an alternative method of enforcement.
Friot suggested in one footnote that if the dismissed plaintiffs were executed, they could serve as human subjects to help determine if Oklahoma’s execution protocol is unconstitutionally cruel. The state quickly planned execution dates for these six plus a seventh, which was not part of the trial. The dismissed plaintiffs have since been reinstated in the case, but the state has refused to cancel the executions.
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