A recommendation by the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board earlier this month to commute the death sentence of Julius Jones, who was tried and sentenced to death in the 1999 murder of an Oklahoma City insurance executive, now goes to the governor. Under Oklahoma law, it will be up to the governor to decide whether to allow Jones to spend the rest of his life in prison or allow the original death sentence to remain.
The 3 to 1 vote of the board in favor of commutation of the death sentence comes about after lawyers working on behalf of Jones exhausted all appeals and post-conviction challenges, including a petition for a writ of certiorari that the United States Supreme Court denied. This extensive appellate review of the case makes the board's recommendation and comment by its chairman — "I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubt, and put simply, I have doubts in this case," — worthy of a closer look as to how we arrived here.
Carjacking turns into a homicide
Paul Howell, a 45-year-old insurance executive, was shot and killed on the night of July 28, 1999, in the driveway of his home. Howell pulled into the driveway after an evening out with his daughters and his sister(who were passengers in the vehicle).
Before anyone got out of the vehicle, a young black man approached the driver and fired a shot from a handgun, killing Howell. As the victim's daughters and sister ran, the shooter drove off in the vehicle. Police arrested Jones a few days later and charged him with the shooting.
The police were led to Jones by a rather vague description from the victim's sister that included mention of the gunman having a red bandana. They recovered the bandana and the handgun allegedly used in the shooting from Jones' parents’ home.
Police were apparently directed to the gun and bandana by Christopher Jordan, who was suspected by police of having a role in the crime as the driver of the vehicle that took Jones to the Howell home. Jordan was charged along with Jones, but he cut a deal with prosecutors to testify at the trial and implicate Jones as the shooter. In return, Jordan avoided the death penalty.
One of the troubling facts of this case was the failure of jurors to hear that the star witness for the prosecution, who led police to the murder weapon and red bandana, had actually stayed overnight at the home where officers found the items the following day. Police knew that Jordan slept at the Jones' house, but the information was not disclosed to the defense.
Conviction draws media attention
The chairman of the parole board is not the first person to have doubts about the conviction. Two NFL quarterbacks, Baker Mayfield and Dak Prescott, have written to the Oklahoma governor expressing their doubts about Jones being guilty of the crime. The Last Defense, which aired on ABC in 2018, attempted to shed light on the facts of the case as well.
The matter has also drawn the attention of James Corden, a late-night television host, and Kim Kardashian West, who made the case a subject of a podcast. There have been public demonstrations supporting Mr. Jones and a website funded by a California-based organization featuring a page titled "Justice for Julius."
Not everyone has doubts
It should come as no surprise that members of the victim's family, including his sister and daughters, look on with disbelief at the outpouring of support for the man convicted of the crime. For them, there is no doubt that the decision of the jurors who sat through the trial, listened to the testimony, and saw the evidence was the correct one, regardless of what evidence was withheld from the jury's consideration.
David Prater, the Oklahoma County District Attorney, was quoted after the vote by the parole board as saying, "Justice has been subverted by celebrity, money and politics." Who knows, maybe he's right. But more importantly, maybe he's wrong: there are plenty of questions regarding the trial and the issues involved, and reasonable minds obviously have reservations as to the ultimate issue of guilt.
Nevertheless, the person granted authority under Oklahoma state law to have the final word on the matter is the governor. Consequently, neither side likely feels that “justice” for Julius has been served at this point. We will monitor the situation and the governor’s decision as this matter progresses in the upcoming months.