OK Pardon & Parole Board Again Recommends Commutation for Julius Jones
Death Penalty Information Center: Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Again Recommends Commuting Julius Jones' Death Sentence
November 3, 2021
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has for a second time recommended that Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt grant clemency to death-row prisoner Julius Jones.
Following a hearing on November 1, 2021, the board, citing doubts about Jones’ guilt, voted 3-1 to ask Stitt to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. Jones, who is Black, is scheduled to be executed November 18 on charges that he murdered Paul Howell, a white businessman, in 1999. His case has garnered worldwide attention amidst evidence of racial bias, incompetent representation, and possible innocence.
Testifying by video conference, Jones told the board: “First, I feel for the Howell family, for the tragic loss of Mr. Paul Howell, who I’ve heard was a caring and all-around good person. … Second, I am not the person responsible for taking Mr. Howell’s life. … Truth is,” Jones said, “I didn’t shoot that man. I didn’t kill Mr. Paul Howell. I wasn’t involved in it in any way.”
Board members Adam Luck, Larry Morris, and Kelly Doyle voted in favor of recommending commutation, while Richard Smothermon voted against clemency. Board member Scott Williams recused himself from the decision to avoid any appearance of conflict arising out of a professional relationship with one of Jones’ lawyers in an unrelated matter.
The governor’s office issued a short statement saying that “Governor Stitt is aware of the Pardon and Parole Board’s vote.” The statement did not address the substance of the board’s recommendation, adding only “Our office will not offer further comment until the governor has made a final decision.”
Attempts to Undermine the Clemency Process
Oklahoma officials have come under fire for what critics have called attempts to manipulate the clemency process and intimidate parole board members. In June 2020, according to news reports by The Frontier, board member Allen McCall threatened to pursue criminal charges against the board’s executive director, Steven Bickley, unless Bickley took steps to prevent Jones from obtaining a commutation hearing before he was the subject of a death warrant. In response, Bickley sought an official opinion from then-Attorney General Mike Hunter on whether such hearings could be scheduled. Hunter approved the pre-warrant hearings, but Bickley took a leave of absence and ultimately resigned, saying he had been “threatened for doing his job.”
After the board scheduled Jones’ commutation hearing, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater filed an emergency motion in the Oklahoma Supreme Court seeking to recuse Luck and Doyle from participating. Prater claimed in his suit that the board members would be biased in favor of commutation because of professional ties to organizations that seek to reduce incarceration rates. The court denied the motion on September 10, 2021, three days ahead of the scheduled hearing, writing that Prater was “asking this Court to provide for a remedy that simply does not exist under Oklahoma law.”
After the September 30 hearing, the board voted 3-1, in the same alignment as in the clemency hearing, to recommend that Gov. Stitt commute Jones’ sentence to a parole-eligible life sentence.
One week after the commutation recommendation, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals scheduled Jones’ execution. Gov. Stitt took no action on the commutation recommendation, saying he would wait for the results of the clemency hearing.
Prior to the clemency hearing, Attorney General John O’Connor — who replaced Hunter after he resigned for personal reasons — also tried to remove Luck and Doyle from the case. O’Connor’s reasons for recusing the pair was indistinguishable from those previously advanced by Prater and already rejected by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The court denied O’Connor’s motion.
The Black Wall Street Times accused the prosecutors of interfering in the clemency process and seeking “to silence and remove” Luck and Doyle from the case. The Times noted “while DA Prater considers their participation a conflict of interest, he said nothing about Board member Richard Smothermon,” a 16-year Oklahoma District Attorney “who has former ties to DA Prater [and] … has collaborated with DA Prater in the past as members of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council.”
Jones’ Clemency Hearing
Jones’ lawyers argued during the clemency hearing that he is innocent, that his co-defendant, Christopher Jordan fits the eyewitness description of the murder, that his lawyers failed to present alibi evidence that he was home with his family at the time of the murder, and that his case was tainted by racism and prosecutorial misconduct. Police, Jones’ counsel said, taunted him at the time of arrest, saying “Run n***r. I dare you, run.” Jones also presented a sworn statement from a member of his jury that another juror had referred to Jones with that same racial slur and then said that they should “shoot [Jones], and take him and bury him underneath the jail.”
Defense counsel also argued that prosecutors withheld critical evidence from the defense and the jury about the lenient deal they offered to Jordan in exchange for his testimony against Jones. Under that deal, Jordan was released from prison after serving a 15-year sentence. Jones also presented the board with evidence the jury had never heard that Jordan had confessed to killing Howell and said that someone else was on death row for the killing.
Jones also presented testimony from Connie Ellison, Paul Howell’s girlfriend at the time he was killed. Ellison told the Board that, while she is “still tormented” by Howell’s murder, “I’m here to ask for mercy. There are too many questions and too much doubt about Julius’ guilt to allow the state of Oklahoma to execute him in just over two weeks,” she said. “I feel that I wouldn’t want that and neither would Paul Howell.”
Howell’s family accused Jones’ supporters of running a disinformation campaign and said they had no doubt that he had killed Paul Howell. They said that they saw Jones commit the killing and that his DNA (along with that of other unidentified DNA contributors) was found on a red bandana the killer was said to be wearing at the time of the murder.
Board member Smothermon said that to believe Jones’ innocence claim, “you have to disbelieve every other piece of evidence in the case,” including the witnesses and physical evidence.
Jones’ case gathered widespread attention after an ABC documentary series, with millions signing an online petition asking Stitt to prevent his execution. He is part of an ongoing lawsuit, challenging the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection methods. However, the U.S. Supreme Court on October 28, 2021 vacated a stay of execution that would have halted his execution pending the outcome of a federal trial on the constitutionality of the state’s execution process. That trial is scheduled to being in February 2022. The Supreme Court order also vacated a stay for Oklahoma death-row prisoner John Grant, who was executed on October 28. According to media eyewitnesses, Grant suffered more than two dozen full-body convulsions and vomited several times over a 15-minute period during the execution before he was declared unconscious, injected with the second and third drugs in the state’s execution protocol, and died.