Oklahoma is nationally known for its close-knit southern feel and our warm Midwestern friendliness. While the people are good, the systems could be better. Systems – groups of related things that work together as a whole – are what help define societies and cultures. And in our state, racial bias and poverty impact the complex structures that define education, healthcare, criminal justice, and much more.
Many of us have heard about Julius Jones, a black man who has been on Oklahoma’s death row for over twenty years. It’s time for us as citizens to give heartfelt and critical thought to Mr. Jones and what his case represents, because there is evidence that supports his innocence.
In 1999, Mr. Jones was arrested for the murder of Mr. Paul Howell, a prominent white businessman in Edmond. The media, driven by District Attorney Bob “Cowboy” Macy, immediately suggested drug-related violence perpetrated by Black men as the motivation. A juror on Mr. Jones’ case allegedly referred to him with a racial slur and said they might as well take him behind the courthouse and shoot him. Additionally, 11 of the 12 jurors in his trial were white.
None of these things necessarily shift the scales of justice when taken in isolation. Together, however, they suggest a toxic environment where a Black man was presumed guilty, at least in part, because of the color of his skin.
That environment is not contained to Mr. Jones’ case. It is a pervasive problem within our justice system, and directly contributes to statistical anomalies that cannot be explained unless one takes race and racism into account. Consider the fact that three times as many Black men and women who are charged with felonies are sentenced to prison than their white counterparts; additionally, Black men charged with murder are three times more likely to get the death penalty if their alleged victims are white.
Furthermore, Oklahoma’s track record on capital murder cases for people of any race is troubling. Ten Oklahomans – five white and five Black – have been released from death row, either because of prosecutorial misconduct or evidence of actual innocence. Race aside, most people would say the state should never execute a potentially innocent person. Unfortunately, our track-record indicates that we have come very close.
In Mr. Jones’ case, one could ignore these arguments about systemic racial bias and still be alarmed by this simple truth: there is another man walking free who has confessed to Mr. Howell’s murder. Three individuals – none incentivized by money or deals – have reported that Mr. Jones’ co-defendant confessed numerous times to the murder of Mr. Paul Howell. He bragged about it, even. If that doesn’t matter, what does?
Mr. Jones has a commutation hearing on September 13, and Oklahoma’s values around race, justice and truth are standing trial.
Oklahomans believe in the “Oklahoma Standard” for compassion and empathy. Commuting the sentence of an innocent man who has already spent two decades in prison is our chance to show that we are striving to live by that standard. We need to pay close attention to a system that would insist on executing a man in spite of the information we have now.
The death of Mr. Howell was an absolute tragedy. Executing an innocent man will not bring Mr. Howell back to his family, but commuting an innocent man will bring Julius Jones closer to his. After 20 years in prison it is time to right this wrong. Life matters, and race does too. It’s time to welcome Julius home.
George Young is a Democratic State Senator from Oklahoma City. Kris Steele is the former Republican Speaker of the House and is a criminal justice reform advocate.