Julius Jones Is Still At Risk Of Execution Despite A Parole Board Twice Suggesting He May Be Innocent

Oklahoma already botched one execution last month and plans to proceed with more despite ongoing litigation over the lethal injection process.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: AP

On Sept. 13, Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board recommended in a 3-1 vote that Julius Jones’ death sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole, citing evidence of his innocence and his young age at the time of the 1999 crime. “Personally, I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubts. And put simply, I have doubts about the case,” board Chairman Adam Luck said. The board recommended clemency for a second time on Nov. 1, and again voiced doubts about Jones’ guilt.

But unless Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) intervenes, Jones will be executed next week. He is scheduled to die on Nov. 18 for a murder that he has, for decades, maintained he did not commit.

Death sentences are notoriously difficult to derail in America once they have been handed down — although appeals may go on for years or even decades, the judicial process is engineered to give those on death row little chance to ultimately avoid their fate. In this case, the Pardon and Parole Board has come under a series of withering, politically motivated attacks that appear to be intended to deter members from recommending Jones’ life be spared. The perpetrators of these intimidating attacks — including at least one who has a conflict of interest in Jones’ case — are undermining the integrity of the state’s clemency process.

There is already overwhelming evidence that Oklahoma is unable or unwilling to ensure that executions won’t involve unconstitutional levels of suffering. Last month, the state conducted its third consecutive botched execution, in which John Marion Grant convulsed and vomited as he died. Grant’s execution was the first in the state after a six-year pause, during which time the state had supposedly implemented safeguards to make the process more humane. The only reason Grant was executed at that time was because he, like Jones and several other plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection protocol, initially declined to specify exactly how he wanted the state to kill him, an action they felt was akin to suicide.

In spite of all this, Oklahoma is pushing forward with its plan to execute six more people in the coming months. The ones the state succeeds in killing will, effectively, be human test subjects; whatever pain they suffer in death will be collected as evidence at the upcoming trial they will not be alive to participate in. And in Jones’ case, the state may make the irreversible mistake of killing a man who was wrongfully convicted.

For more than a year, various Oklahoma state officials have been engaged in a concerted effort to block Jones from getting meaningful review by the state’s Pardon and Parole Board. In June 2020, then-board member and former district court judge Allen McCall threatened to seek criminal charges against then-executive director Steven Bickley unless Bickley took steps to block Jones from getting a commutation hearing before receiving an execution date. Bickley requested a leave of absence over what he internally described as “threats to criminalize my public service” and resigned weeks later, The Frontier reported.

Around the same time of McCall’s threats to Bickley, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, whose office tried Jones’ case, filed an open records request asking for all communications from board members that reference phrases including, “Commutation,” “Commute,” “Conflict of interest,” “Criminal Justice Reform,” “Death penalty,” “Draconian,” “God,” “Jesus,” “Julius,” and “Julius Jones.”

Two weeks later, on July 6, 2020, several district attorneys submitted recusal requests, asking that Luck be removed from the parole board’s consideration of various cases. “This was clearly a coordinated effort on the part of [Prater] and his colleagues to begin subverting the Governor’s Board appointees and ultimately influence the case of Julius Jones,” Luck’s lawyer wrote in a court filing.

Last March, Prater asked Luck to recuse himself from Julius’ case, claiming that Luck’s 2019 Twitter thread explaining the process of reviewing Jones’ commutation application showed “personal bias.” Luck’s first tweet in the thread was a quote tweet of Kim Kardashian directing her followers to ask the Pardon and Parole Board to give “careful and thoughtful consideration” to Jones’ request.

But Luck stayed on Jones’ case and the board voted 3-1 to advance the commutation request to the next stage. Days later, Prater sued Oklahoma’s governor and Pardon and Parole Board, accusing Luck and another board member, Kelly Doyle, of having “direct, material financial interest” in parole and commutation cases. Prater’s March 11 petition opens with an italicized quote from Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist who was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban when she was 15 years old, in retaliation for her work promoting female education: “I raise up my voice — not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.”

In his petition, Prater claimed that Luck and Doyle’s work at separate organizations that provide services to formerly incarcerated people creates a conflict of interest in considering parole and commutation requests. The district attorney asked the court to consider any recommendation for parole or commutation that Luck or Doyle participated in to be invalid and to bar the governor from considering any requests that they voted on. Prater eventually withdrew his own lawsuit.

As Jones’ commutation hearing drew closer, Prater ramped up his attacks on Luck and Doyle. On Sept. 3, he filed motions asking them to recuse themselves from participating in Jones’ hearing. As supposed evidence of Luck’s bias, Prater pointed to a 2019 article that described Luck having tears in his eyes as he spoke about the criminal justice system.

Days later, Prater asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to block Luck and Doyle from Jones’ hearing, which the court denied. Prater was represented in his state Supreme Court bid by Sandra Howell-Elliott, who prosecuted Jones at his trial nearly 20 years ago. After the Oklahoma Supreme Court denied Prater’s request, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor filed a similar request, which the court also denied.

On Sept. 13, nearly two years after Jones submitted his commutation application, the Pardon and Parole Board held its hearing. Three members, including Luck and Doyle, voted to commute Jones’ death sentence to life with the possibility of parole; another board member voted against commuting the sentence. The board’s recommendation went to Stitt to determine Jones’ fate. But before the governor released a decision, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued death warrants for Jones and six other men on death row.

When an individual receives an execution date, the Pardon and Parole Board is required to set up a clemency hearing at least 21 days before the individual is scheduled to die. Although the clemency process is similar to the commutation process Jones had already begun, Stitt said he would wait to make his final decision until after Jones’ clemency hearing.

The next day, Prater requested a grand jury investigation into the Pardon and Parole Board, a move Stitt described as “the latest political stunt to intimidate the Pardon and Parole Board and obstruct the Constitutional process as high-profile cases that his office prosecuted are being considered.”

Prater did not mention Luck, Kelly or Jones by name, but the request came weeks before Jones’ scheduled clemency hearing. The judge who approved the request, Ray Elliott, is married to Sandra Elliott, the prosecutor from Jones’ trial.

The Pardon and Parole Board held Jones’ clemency hearing on Nov. 1, with Luck and Doyle in attendance. Jones was given 20 minutes to address the board, “the first chance that I’ve had in over 20 years to talk about what happened and where I was on the night Mr. Paul Howell was senselessly murdered,” Jones said.

“I want to be clear about two things. First, I feel for the Howell family and for the tragic loss of Mr. Paul Howell, who I’ve heard was a caring and all-around good person and father. Second, I am not the person responsible for taking Mr. Howell’s life.”

Howell’s sister Megan Tobey, who witnessed the shooting, also spoke at the hearing. She accused Jones of being a “sociopath” responsible for “an execution-style murder” and said “we need this to end for our family.”

Again, the board voted 3-1 to let Jones live. If Stitt follows the board’s recommendation to commute Jones’ sentence to life with the possibility of parole, Jones would be eligible to request parole because of the length of time he has served. Stitt’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

“I want to be clear about two things. First, I feel for the Howell family and for the tragic loss of Mr. Paul Howell, who I’ve heard was a caring and all-around good person and father. Second, I am not the person responsible for taking Mr. Howell’s life.”

- Julius Jones

Jones was sentenced to death for the July 28, 1999, murder of Paul Howell, who was shot after pulling his GMC Suburban into the driveway of his parents’ home. His adult sister and two young children were with him at the time. His sister would later describe the shooter as a Black man, wearing a black stocking cap and a red bandana over his face.

After police recovered Howell’s stolen Suburban, two confidential informants told police that Jones and his friend Christopher Jordan were involved in the robbery and shooting. Two days after the crime, police arrested Jordan, who claimed Jones was the one who shot Howell. Police arrested Jones the next morning.

While moving from one police car into another, a police officer removed Jones’ handcuffs and said, “Run n****r. I dare you, run,” Jones, who is Black, later recalled. “I stood frozen, knowing that if I moved, I could be shot and killed,” Jones said.

Bob Macy, the district attorney at the time, vowed to seek the death penalty before charges were formally filed. But Jones had an alibi. Multiple family members say he was at home at the time of shooting. They remember details about that day: the family Monopoly game where Jones’ sister gave him all her property and money because she had to pull out of the game to get her hair done, the spaghetti dinner they ate together, and how Jones’ brother kept sneaking bites of a giant chocolate chip cookie Jones had gotten as a gift from a friend for his 19th birthday days earlier.

“I think he was supposed to take a picture of it before he started eating it,” Jones’ sister Antoinette Jones said in the interview, referring to the cookie. “So, it’s stuff like that, I can kind of laugh about it because I have peace about it because I know where my brother was.”

But the jury at Jones’ trial never heard from his family about their recollection of his whereabouts the night of the crime. After Jones’ initial lawyer passed away, the court appointed three overworked public defenders, none of whom had ever tried a death penalty case.

“I was terrified by this case due to my inexperience in death penalty litigation,” lead counsel David McKenzie said in a 2004 affidavit. The second lawyer on the case had been a lawyer for a little over a year and the third had passed the bar exam the month before being assigned to Jones’ case.

Before the trial, a man named Manuel Littlejohn told McKenzie that while he was in the same jail as Jordan, Jordan admitted to shooting Howell. Littlejohn had nothing to gain by coming forward — unlike prosecutors, defense attorneys can’t offer deals in exchange for cooperation. But McKenzie worried that the jury would find Littlejohn, who was facing murder charges, unreliable and decided not to call him as a witness.

In fact, McKenzie did not call a single witness to defend Jones at trial. When it was his turn to present Jones’ defense, McKenzie said only, “Judge, the defense announces rest.” What was supposed to be an adversarial process became a one-sided presentation of Jones’ guilt. The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death.

“I was devastated when I heard the words, ‘We rest,’” Antoinette Jones said in an episode of the podcast “Wrongful Conviction.” “There was no defense there.”

Jones’ post-conviction attorneys have since discovered that after his arrest, Jordan offered detectives several conflicting versions of what happened the night of the shooting. Throughout the process, the detectives interviewing him nudged him into making claims that would make him a “better witness,” Jones’ lawyers documented in his clemency application.

In 2004, after Jones was sentenced to death, Littlejohn repeated in a sworn statement his recollection of his 1999 conversation with Jordan. “Jordan stated to me, ‘Julius didn’t do it,’ and ‘Julius wasn’t there,’” Littlejohn said in the statement. According to Littlejohn, Jordan said he planted the murder weapon in Jones’ home and said that he was getting a shorter sentence in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors.

In addition to Littlejohn, three other people who have been incarcerated with Jordan have come forward and said they have heard Jordan admit that he killed someone another person was convicted of murdering.

“Jordan said to me, ‘My co-defendant is on death row behind a murder I committed,’” said Roderick Wesley, who said he was close friends with Jordan in prison. Jordan “didn’t go into any details about the crime or give any names; he only said he killed a man. When Jordan was telling me this, he was acting like he was sorry for what he had done, but he said that he was not going to jump out there and give himself up to the wolves.”

Jordan, who was sentenced to 30 years, was released after 15. He could not be reached for comment.

“This whole ordeal has been a nightmare that we have not been able to wake up from,” Antoinette Jones said in an interview. “Julius has always been the peacemaker. He doesn’t like to see people argue. He is the person that’s going to make you laugh, make sure you’re comfortable, and that everything is okay with you. That’s just who he is as a person.”

The prospect of losing her brother makes her empathize with the Howell family, Antoinette said. Whenever she speaks about her brother’s case, she thinks about Howell’s kids — how young they were when he was killed and how they’ll never have the chance to see him again.

“They’re always in my prayers,” she said.

“I was devastated when I heard the words, 'We rest.' ... There was no defense there.”

- Antoinette Jones

That Jones is even facing an execution date hinges on a grim legal technicality. Jones, along with dozens of other men on Oklahoma’s death row are part of an ongoing lawsuit over whether the state’s lethal injection protocol violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The trial is expected to begin early next year.

The state’s three-drug execution protocol — midazolam, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride — is the same combination of drugs used in the high-profile botched execution of Clayton Lockett in 2014. Both men who have been executed in Oklahoma since Lockett’s death — Charles Warner in 2015 and Grant last month — showed visible signs of pain as they died. Warner’s autopsy revealed that he had been killed using the wrong combination of drugs, a mistake the state almost repeated on Richard Glossip before the execution was halted at the last minute.

In May 2020, U.S. District Judge Stephen Friot stated that he had received assurances from then-Attorney General Mike Hunter that the state would not seek execution dates until the lawsuit was completed. But last August, when Friot ruled that the case could proceed to trial, he dismissed six plaintiffs from the suit, claiming they had not adequately offered an alternative method of execution.

According to the Supreme Court, for this type of lethal injection challenge to succeed, the plaintiffs have to not only show that the execution method is unconstitutional but also offer a feasible alternative. In a court filing that all plaintiffs signed, lawyers offered four alternative execution methods, but the judge instructed each plaintiff to affirmatively select their preferences. Six, including Jones, initially declined to do so, mostly citing religious or ethical objections to facilitating their own deaths. One later said there was a miscommunication and that he did not mean to decline to specify an alternative. None of the men had any reason to believe that declining to check a box indicating their preferred method of death would subject them to imminent execution.

In a footnote, Friot suggested that the six men he dismissed from the lawsuit could serve as human test subjects to help determine whether Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol is unconstitutionally cruel. Their deaths, he wrote, could serve as a “track record” of the execution protocol by the time the case goes to trial for the surviving plaintiffs.

The state quickly scheduled execution dates for those six men, plus one other who is not part of the lawsuit but is also challenging the legality of the execution protocol in a separate suit. An appellate court has since ordered that the dismissed plaintiffs be reinstated but the state has refused to call off the scheduled executions.

Late last month, the state executed Grant, the first execution after a six-year pause. The 60-year-old man convulsed and vomited as he died — signs of suffering that, as Friot suggested, will likely be used as evidence in the upcoming trial to determine whether his manner of execution was legal.

Meanwhile, Jones is on death watch in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary as he waits to see if the governor will take the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation to grant clemency. Life on Oklahoma’s death watch is incredibly restrictive: The lights stay on 24 hours a day and a guard sits outside Jones’ cell, documenting his activity every 15 minutes. He has lost access to most of his belongings; if he wants a pen, toilet paper or toothpaste, he has to request it from the guard and give it back when he’s done, his lawyer, Amanda Bass, said in an interview.

Last month, Jones’ mother and sister made the 230-mile drive to McAlester, where the Oklahoma State Penitentiary is located, to participate in a prayer vigil with members of their community. Near the end of the vigil, Antoinette instructed the group to chant three times, “We love you, Julius!”

“It was very powerful,” Antoinette Jones said. “I felt like he heard us.”

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