Julius Jones, who faces execution as early as November for the 1999 killing of Edmond man Paul Howell, has moved one step closer in his quest to getting off Oklahoma’s death row, after the state Pardon and Parole Board on Monday recommended commuting his sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Three members of the board, Adam Luck, Kelly Doyle and Larry Morris, voted in favor of commuting Jones’ sentence. One member, Richard Smothermon, a former district attorney, voted against Jones.
Jones is the first death row inmate to have a commutation case heard by Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board. His case now goes to Gov. Kevin Stitt, who will decide whether to commute Jones’ death sentence.
Oklahoma has granted clemency to just four death row prisoners since the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the legality of the capital punishment in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Four members of the Howell family spoke on Monday, urging the board to not recommend commutation for Jones. Brian Howell, Paul Howell’s brother, talked about the difficulty of seeing his brother’s story played out in television documentaries and news stories, while the family had to deal with the stress, grief and anguish of losing a loved one.
Megan Tobey, Paul Howell’s sister, recounted the panic she saw in her parents’ faces as Paul Howell lay bleeding and wounded on their driveway. She said she felt like a target, given the high-profile nature of Jones’ supporters, who include NBA basketball players and Kim Kardashian. She said Jones once wrote her a letter asking her to change her testimony, and she feared what would happen if Jones got out of prison given that he was able to find her home address.
“He is still a threat to society,” she said. “Our family needs closure and justice. We need to stop being victimized by Jones and his supporters.”
Luck thanked the Howell family for speaking on Monday, but said he believed there should be no doubt in a person’s guilt when the death penalty is in play.
“And personally, I have doubts,” Luck said.
Doyle and Morris agreed. Doyle, for the most part, focused not on Jones’ guilt or innocence, but on the “excessive nature” of his punishment. She said “most notably” she felt like Jones being 19 at time and “what we know now about brain science and brain development … is not what we know now.”
Doyle also said she had doubts about the case against Jones, and believed it was “not in the best interest of the state” to execute him.
The result of Monday’s hearing seemed to be decided before it began when one board member recused himself. Prior to the meeting, board member Scott Williams announced he would recuse himself from the hearing, leaving only four members to vote on Jones’ fate.
Jones needed three votes to receive a commutation recommendation and it seemed unlikely that Williams, who was not on the board in March during the first phase of Jones’ hearing, would recuse himself with the outcome hanging in the balance.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, who has fought for years to keep Jones behind bars and on death row, attempted on Friday to get the Oklahoma Supreme Court to bar two other members, Luck and Doyle, from hearing Jones’ case on Monday. The board ruled against Prater’s request. On Monday, he also asked Williams to recuse himself.
Williams, who has a working relationship with an attorney who represented Jones at Monday’s hearing, said that while he did not feel that relationship would bias him, he would recuse in order to make sure the results of the hearing seemed “above board.”
Williams remained seated with the other board members throughout the hearing but did not ask any questions.
Monday’s hearing put a cap on a tumultuous, unprecedented 15 months for the Pardon and Parole Board. The board asked then-Attorney General Mike Hunter in June 2020 if it could hold commutation hearings for death row inmates. The request came amid growing interest locally and nationally in Jones’ case.
The Frontier previously reported that a board member, former district court judge Allen McCall, had threatened the board’s executive director, Steven Bickley, with a grand jury investigation if he did not ask for Hunter’s opinion on whether holding commutation hearings for death row inmates was appropriate.
Bickley resigned and said he was “threatened for doing his job.” Hunter, who said he believed Jones was guilty of killing Howell, later told the board it could hold commutation hearings for prisoners on death row.
In March, Prater asked Pardon and Parole Board member Luck to recuse himself from hearing the first stage of Jones’ commutation hearing. Luck declined, and ultimately voted in favor of Jones passing to the second stage of his hearing process. District attorneys have routinely asked Luck and Doyle to recuse themselves from commutation hearings in the past. The prosecutors regularly claim the two board members have ties to criminal justice reform efforts that make them biased.
In September, Prater asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to bar Luck and Doyle from Jones’ commutation case, also accusing the pair of bias. But the court ruled against Prater.
Prater could not immediately be reached for comment Monday. He released a statement last Friday, saying he would “continue to fight for Paul Howell, his family and all innocent citizens of Oklahoma” no matter what the board decided to do in Jones’ case.
Monday’s hearing took about four hours and included 30 minutes of testimony each from Howell’s family, as well as an Oklahoma County prosecutor and a group of Jones’ supporters, including attorney Amanda Bass, supporter Kelli Masters, and Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City. Masters and Young both talked about the time they had personally spent with Jones, and how his demeanor and “maturity” led them to believe he could contribute to society.
Young said Jones expressed an interest in mentoring youth if he ever got out of prison. While Jones maintains he did not kill Howell, he admitted to Young that he had made mistakes in his youth, and often spent time with the “wrong kinds of people,” the senator said. Young said he believed Jones could fill a role in society by talking to children about the importance of staying out of trouble and away from bad influences.
The ultimate decision on Jones’ fate now lies with the governor. Stitt has given no indication of what he might do and is currently out of state, according to staff.
“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,” said Carly Atchison, a spokeswoman for Stitt.
The clock is ticking. Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, who Stitt appointed in July, has asked the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals for permission to execute Jones as early as Nov. 18.
Oklahoma has not conducted an execution since a series of high-profile bungles in 2014 and 2015 led to a 6-year execution hiatus.
June 2020 – The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board asked the state Attorney General for clarification on the legality of holding two-stage commutation hearings for death row inmates. The request came amid growing interest in the case of Julius Jones, an Edmond man held on death row for a 1999 murder.
June 2020 – Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said death row inmates can apply for commutation.
June 2020 – Pardon and Parole Board member Allen McCall told Executive Director Steven Bickley he would make accusations of unspecified criminal activity against him if he did not ask the Oklahoma Attorney General to weigh in on whether a request by Jones for a commutation hearing was valid, according to emails compiled in an internal memo that was obtained by The Frontier.
July 2020 – Pardon and Parole Board executive director Steve Bickley resigned, saying he was being “threatened for doing my job.” In June, board member Allen McCall told Bickley he would make accusations of unspecified criminal activity against him if he did not ask the state attorney general to weigh in on whether a death row inmate could request a commutation hearing, according to emails compiled in an internal memo that was obtained by The Frontier.
March 2021 – Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater requests that Pardon and Parole Board member Adam Luck recuse from hearing Julius Jones’ commutation case. Luck declined, and ultimately voted in favor of Jones proceeding to the second stage of his commutation process. The Frontier found that as the Pardon and Parole Board grew more active, district attorneys from across the state have increasingly tried to get Luck and board member Kelly Doyle to recuse themselves from commutation cases.
March 2021 – Julius Jones passed the first stage of the commutation hearing process.
September 2021 – The Oklahoma Supreme Court denied an attempt by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater to bar Pardon and Parole Board members Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle from hearing the second stage of Julius Jones’ commutation process.
September 2021 – The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommends commutation for Julius Jones.