Julius Jones’ case for innocence passed a significant hurdle on Monday as the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted to move his case to a Stage 2 commutation hearing.

Jones, whose case moved on by a vote of 3-1, now moves to a more intensive hearing, at which he can speak to the board members directly.

Board members Adam Luck, Kelly Doyle and Larry Morris voted in favor of Jones on Monday during a brief Stage 1 hearing. Board member Allen McCall voted against Jones.

Jones’ case was a first for the board. He was the first death row inmate to have his case heard by the board, but the journey there wasn’t easy.

Antoinette Jones, the sister of Julius Jones, said she was grateful to the Pardon and Parole board for advancing her brother’s commutation request to a second phase, extending hope that after 22 years on death row he might still be released or at least have his death sentence commuted. 

“I’m still in shock right now but I’ve definitely been thanking God,” Antoinette said Monday afternoon, hours after the state Pardon and Parole Board voted 3 to 1 to advance Jones’ commutation request to to be heard later this year. 

While Antoinette said she was grateful for the vote, she said her family’s “hellish nightmare” continued. 

Jones’ cases has received nationwide attention as a slew of celebrities have called for his release and a social media campaign has advocated for his innocence. 

“They mean everything to me and my family,” Antoinette said about the wave of support. 

Dale Baich, Jones’ defense attorney who has worked on this case since 2016, said Monday’s vote by the state Pardon and Parole Board was a “small step towards correcting this injustice.”

Antoinette Jones, the sister of Julius Jones, speaks on March 8, 2021, after the state Pardon and Parole Board advanced her brother’s commutation request to a second phase. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

A hearing before the board will be held later this year, giving Jones his final attempt to avoid execution. Baich said they will ask that Jones’ sentence be commuted to time served, which would allow him to be released from prison.

Baich said his team will present a series of evidence that “Taken together they paint a picture of an innocent man who was railroaded by the state.”

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said in a statement that he was “disappointed” in the three board members who voted to send Jones to Stage 2.

“With the exception of Judge Allen McCall, I am disappointed in the members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board,” Hunter said. “The three members who voted in favor of moving Jones to stage two did not apply objective standards to the law or the evidence.

“My office will continue to stand on the irrefutable facts of this case and with the family of Paul Howell by opposing Jones’ request for relief from the Pardon and Parole Board.”

Hunter said Jones’ next appearance before the board will be in June. If he passes Stage 2 his case would then head to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk for an ultimate decision.

Last summer, when the question was posed to the board of whether death row inmates could be eligible for commutation, one member — McCall, a former district judge — threatened the board’s executive director with unspecified grand jury action.

Dale Baich, defense attorney for Julius Jones, speaks about a vote by the Pardon and Parole board on March 8, 2021. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

The executive director, Stephen Bickley, resigned and was replaced by Tom Bates. The board eventually asked Attorney General Mike Hunter for clarification on the question. Hunter said that former state Attorney General Scott Pruitt had already ruled on the matter — there was no mechanism to parole an inmate on death row, Pruitt had said, but commutation had no limits.

Prior to Monday’s hearing, Oklahoma District Attorney David Prater asked Adam Luck, one of four current board members, to recuse from hearing Jones’ case over a social media post Luck made in 2019.

Luck, who occasionally discusses on Twitter the workings of the Pardon and Parole Board, retweeted a tweet of Kim Kardashian’s that she wrote the day after Jones first made his request for a commutation hearing. Luck retweeted Kardashian, acknowledging that she was correct that Jones had requested the hearing. He then wrote a lengthy explanation of why Jones’ case for commutation was significant.

Prater called Luck biased in the letter, but ultimately the recusal of a Pardon and Parole Board member is purely voluntary and Luck announced prior to Monday’s hearing that he had declined to recuse.

Jones was convicted in 2001 of murdering Edmond businessman Paul Howell. Jones has maintained his innocence for two decades, but was convicted after his co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, testified against him at trial.

Jones received the death penalty while Jordan received a reduced sentence and was released from prison in 2014.

Jones’ case has caught the attention of athletes and celebrities over the years after a documentary — “The Last Defense” — was released, making a case for Jones’ innocence.

Hunter has said the documentary is skewed and pointed to evidence that he says shows Jones is guilty. The gun used in the Howell killing was found wrapped in a red bandana in the attic above Jones’ room at Jones’ parents’ house, and DNA testing found Jones DNA on it. Howell’s killer was wearing a red bandana, his family has said.

Oklahoma District Attorney David Prater, who was not the DA at the time of Jones’ trial and conviction, wrote a lengthy letter to the Pardon and Parole Board last week making the case for Jones’ guilt. Jones’ attorneys have argued that he received poor counsel during his trial, and was harmed by prejudicial prosecution and even a racist juror who was alleged to have used a racial slur to refer to Jones during his trial.

Earlier this month The Frontier reported that an inmate in Arkansas named Roderick Wesley had told Jones’ attorneys that he had served time with Jordan and that Jordan had confessed to the Howell murder in 2010.

Wesley told Jones’ attorneys in a series of letters and recorded Zoom interviews that Jordan had confessed to him to killing Howell and to letting Jones take the fall, but had not come clean because he did not want to end up on death row himself. Wesley said in the letters he watched a documentary on Jones’ case while in prison in 2020 and realized it was that case that Jordan had been referencing. 

“When I saw it on TV, it was a big decision, do I jump out there or what,” Wesley told Jones’ attorneys “But I looked at it like if it was my situation, I would want somebody who had information to go ahead and do it because this is a man’s life on the line.”

Jordan testified against Jones in the murder trial and received a reduced sentence. Jordan eventually left prison in 2014 and remains on parole.

In one letter Wesley said he knew that someone would question his credibility and “ask exactly why I’m coming forth with such information now.”

“This man’s (Jones) family has been through 18 years of pain and suffering, while Mr. Jordan is walking free,” Wesley wrote in the first letter he sent to Jones’ defense. He said he was troubled to hear Julius Jones’ sister say in the documentary that if Julius Jones gave up, that she would give up too.

“If this man is wrongfully executed, by continuing to conceal this information, I feel as if I would have had a hand in putting this man to death and I can’t live with that on my conscience,” Wesley wrote.

Frontier reporter Ben Felder contributed to this report.