The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board this week agreed to ask the state Attorney General for clarification on the legality of holding two-stage commutation hearings for death row inmates.
The request comes as Oklahoma attempts to resume executions, and amid growing interest in the case of Julius Jones, an Edmond man held on death row for a 1999 murder. Jones has maintained his innocence for more than two decades.
Adam Luck, a member of the Pardon and Parole Board, tweeted on Tuesday that the board had “voted unanimously” to ask Attorney General Mike Hunter “on whether or not individuals on death row are eligible for the two-stage commutation process.”
“There is no precedent for the board to review commutation applications for individuals on death row so the legal implications are significant,” Luck tweeted. “This clarification will determine how we proceed on commutation applications submitted by individuals on death row.”
Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for Hunter, said the Attorney General’s Office had not yet received the board’s request.
Executions in Oklahoma have been on hold for years following the botched execution of Clayton Lockett and the discovery that the wrong drug had been used in the execution of Charles Warner. The same drug was almost used again in the execution of Richard Glossip, but his execution was stayed at the last minute. Glossip remains on death row.
Oklahoma announced in 2018 it would abandon lethal injection, a method it had used for executions for four decades, in favor of inert gas inhalation. But earlier this year the state reversed course and said it had found a reliable source of execution drugs and would resume executions using that method.
But the death penalty remains on hold in the state as a lawsuit filed by attorneys representing dozens of death row inmates in Oklahoma winds its way through the court system.
A death row inmate being given a commutation hearing could be a first in Oklahoma. Death row prisoners routinely go through clemency hearings, which are allowed after an execution date has been set, but a commutation would be a shorter route to an exit from death row.
Oklahoma’s constitution bars the pardon and parole board from giving parole to death row inmates, but appears to say nothing about commuted sentences, which, generally speaking, is the substitution of a lesser sentence for an unjust harsh sentence.
In 2012, then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt issued an opinion to the pardon and parole board saying that while the board could impose a restriction on who it offered parole to, it could not otherwise restrict the governor’s commutation power. The question arose at the time because the pardon and parole board was discussing whether it could commute sentences for inmates serving “85 percent crimes” (crimes in which a person must serve 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole.) Pruitt said the commutation power could not be limited.
Jones, now 39 years old, was convicted in 2002 for the killing of Paul Scott Howell in Edmond. Jones is black and Howell was white. Jones, who is currently fighting for exoneration, was a student at the University of Oklahoma at the time of the killing and his defense has maintained there were numerous errors in his case that led to his conviction.
Jones’ co-defendant, Chris Jordan, testified against Jones and received a life sentence. Jones has said Jordan actually killed Howell, and that he believes Jordan had a “secret deal” with prosecutors. Oklahoma Department of Corrections records show Jordan was released from prison in 2014 after serving just 15 years of his life sentence.
His defense has also pointed to a juror who used racist epithet to describe Jones during the sentencing phase of his trial.
Interest has grown in Jones’ case both locally and nationally — NBA stars Trae Young, Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin, all of whom have Oklahoma connections, have sent letters to Gov. Kevin Stitt asking for Jones’ sentence to be commuted. And Kim Kardashian has also tweeted support for Jones multiple times, most recently on June 4 when she shared the letters sent by Young, Westbrook and Griffin.
Last November, under Stitt’s guidance, the state’s pardon and parole board approved commutations for about 500 prison inmates. It was a monumental day for criminal justice reform advocates who had spent years attempting with little success to get politicians on board with their plan to decrease the number of people in prison.
“I realize that the work ahead is going to be hard and heavy, and there’s a lot of it to do,” Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform Executive Director Kris Steele, the former state speaker of the House, said last November. “We are having to reconsider decades of policies that were focused on retribution and punishment … We realize in order to get to the place we need to be we’re going to have to continue to move forward. But I am optimistic.”
And Oklahoma still has a ways to go. After the commutations were announced, Sen. Jon Echols, who co-sponsored the bill that resulted in the prisoner release, noted during the hearing it merely brought Oklahoma from having the highest incarceration rate in the nation to the next-highest incarceration rate in the nation.