When Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board voted to recommend clemency for death row prisoner Julius Jones, the response from his family and supporters was mostly subdued.
Some held hands. Others hugged immediately after Monday’s hearing ended at Oklahoma City’s Kate Barnard Correctional Center.
Jones’ sister, Antoinette Jones, fell to the ground and clutched her mother Madeline’s hand. Then they piled into their vehicles and drove to a nearby church to decompress.
They’ve been through this before. The board voted 3-1 to recommend commuting Jones’ sentence to either life with time served or life with the possibility of parole. But the board voted by the same margin to commute Jones’ death sentence at a separate hearing in September, only to have Gov. Kevin Stitt announced he wouldn’t make a decision until after Jones received a clemency hearing.
As the meeting emptied on Monday, Jones’ mother Madeline Jones said she “felt good,” but noted there was still a long way to go.
“I thank God and the people of Oklahoma … but I know we still have more to do,” she said.
Jones spoke to the board for 20 minutes on Monday. He admitted that he was guilty of small crimes like stealing pagers or necklaces as a teenager in the 1990s, but said he was not present for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell.
Jones, wearing a red shirt and speaking to the board virtually, apologized to the Howell family. He told the family he “truly wish(ed) Paul Howell was alive,” but said he was “not the person responsible for his death.”
Howell, an Edmond businessman, arrived at his parents’ home on July 28, 1999, following a shopping trip with his two daughters. One of his daughters told police they were approached by two young Black men. One of the men shot Paul Howell once in the head, then fired at other fleeing family members. Howell’s SUV was stolen. Police arrested Jones and another man, Christopher Jordan, a few days later.
Jordan told authorities that he helped Jones steal the vehicle, but said Jones was the one who shot Howell. Jones was sentenced to death for Howell’s murder, while Jordan received a 30-year sentence and was eventually released after 15 years in prison. Jones has continued to maintain his innocence for more than two decades.
If he is released from prison, Jones said he would like to help “young people recognize and avoid the mistakes I’ve made.” Jones painted his relationship with Jordan as one where he was trying to help another troubled teen correct his life. Attorneys for the state argued that the relationship was based more on greed and crime, and said that Jones, not Jordan, was the one with the more extensive criminal past.
Howell’s family members, including his sister, Megan Tobey, and brother Brian Howell, also spoke to the board, describing years of sadness following Paul Howell’s death.
“We need this to end for our family,” Megan Tobey said. “We need Jones to be held accountable.”
Monday’s vote fell along the same lines as Jones’ commutation hearing in September. Board members Larry Morris, Adam Luck, and Kelly Doyle voted in favor of clemency, while Richard Smothermon was opposed. As he did in September, board member Scott Williams recused himself from the hearing.
Smothermon, a former district attorney, said he voted against clemency because “to believe Mr. Jones … you have to disbelieve every other piece of the case. You have to believe his version over every other piece of evidence.”
Morris said voted for clemency because he was unsure of Jones’ guilt and felt it was unfair that Jones received the death penalty while Jordan spent only 15 years in prison. Doyle and Luck both said they had questions over Jones’ guilt as well.
Oklahoma has granted clemency for only four death row prisoners since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Carly Atchison, a spokeswoman for Stitt, said in a statement that Stitt “is aware of the Pardon and Parole Board’s vote today. Our office will not offer further comment until the Governor has made a final decision.”
Amanda Bass, an attorney for Jones who spoke to the board for about 40 minutes on Monday, said in a statement that the Pardon and Parole Board had now twice acknowledged “the grievous errors that led to (Jones’) conviction and death sentence.”
“We hope that Governor Stitt will exercise his authority to accept the Board’s recommendation and ensure that Oklahoma does not execute an innocent man,” Bass said in her statement.
Jones is set to be executed on Nov. 18. If his execution happens, he would be the second person put to death in the state in a three-week span following a more than six-year moratorium on executions in Oklahoma. The halt came after a series of high-profile mistakes made in two executions and three unsuccessful attempts to execute another death row prisoner in 2014 and 2015.
Last week, Oklahoma executed John Grant, 60, who killed a prison cafeteria worker in 2000 while he was incarcerated for a different crime at the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy. Following his execution, media witnesses said Grant went into “full body convulsions” and vomited twice after the execution team administered midazolam, a sedative. Midazolam is the first drug in Oklahoma’s three-drug lethal injection cocktail.
While Jones awaits Stitt’s decision, four other Oklahoma death row prisoners are awaiting an appeals court ruling on their request for stays of execution. The inmates — Donald Grant, Wade Lay, Gilbert Postelle, and James Coddington — have asked the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to halt their upcoming executions.
The Tenth Circuit stayed Grant’s execution last week, but the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately allowed the execution to proceed.
Another inmate on death row, Bigler Stouffer, has filed his own lawsuit, and is awaiting a clemency hearing that has not yet been scheduled.