Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – Lawyers for Oklahoma death row inmate Julius Jones plan to press for clemency for their client. The news was shared at a recent event supporting Oklahoma’s leading organization coordinating efforts to end capital punishment in Oklahoma.
Lawyers announce clemency campaign to seek “Justice for Julius”
At that dinner, Dale Baich, a federal public defender from Arizona who has been legal counsel to Jones during recent appeals, said, “In the coming months, we will be asking the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, and Governor Stitt, to commute Julius’s death sentence. We have a heavy lift. Julius is grateful for the outpouring of support he has received from the people of Oklahoma and around the world. Soon, we will be coming to you again to ask for your support and to ask you to take action when we file the clemency application for Julius.”
In a recent news story, Baich expanded on his grounds for further action to save Jones’ life: “Julius had never had an execution date because his case was in court. Now that it’s out of court, the state can ask for a date, but they still don’t have a protocol in place to carry out executions.”
Baich told The City Sentinel, “Julius’s case is out of court. The next step is to ask for mercy through the Oklahoma clemency process.” He added that there is some time before Julius will ask for his death sentence to be commuted because “Once the Oklahoma protocol is final, there will be a waiting period of five months before the state can ask for an execution date for any death row prisoner. And, there will likely be litigation challenging the new protocol that will follow.”
Baich and his co-counsel, Amanda Bass, came to Oklahoma City to participate in the annual dinner of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP). The two lawyers received the Opio Toure Courageous Advocate Award, named for the former state legislator who spent much of his career advocating for an end to executions in Oklahoma.
The pair have battled tirelessly to save the life of Jones, who was accused, tried and convicted for the July 1999 murder of Edmond insurance executive Paul Scott Howell.
The local District Attorney announced last fall that DNA evidence on a red bandana central to the prosecution’s case had proven Jones’ guilt. However, the results call into question whether the bandana found in the home was even the bandana worn by the shooter. In that case, without saliva being on it, the bandana can no longer be linked to the crime.
Innocence Project leader details concerns in Jones case, and broader problems
In another speech here at the OK-CADP event, Vanessa Potkin, who is Director of Postconviction Litigation for the Innocence Project, a national organization based in New York, reviewed in detail problems with the criminal justice system in general, the death penalty in particular, and specifically faults in the prosecution (and conviction) of death row inmate Julius Jones.
She pointed out there have been 2,460 exonerations nationwide to date, with 35 of those from Oklahoma. Of that total 365 exonerations were driven by DNA evidence. And, of the 365 exonerations for major crimes, 20 freed individuals who had been sentenced to death.
Since reinstitution of capital punishment in the modern era, 165 persons have been exonerated from death row, 10 in Oklahoma. In her OK-CADP speech, Potkin reported on a comprehensive examination of death row inmates’ cases and of underlying factors in those cases. The 2014 study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In all, 2,721 people were on death rows in the United States as of October 2018. Based on the cited analysis, Potkin and other analysts believe an estimated 4.1 percent of those facing execution are innocent. That translates into 109 presumptively innocent people presently on death rows who are facing execution.
In her speech, Potkin frequently pointed to the historic work of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission to bolster her challenge to the death penalty process generally, and in Oklahoma. As that Commission concluded, “In light of the extensive information gathered from this year-long, in-depth study, the Commission members unanimously recommend that the current moratorium on the death penalty be extended until significant reforms have been accomplished.”
The commission pointed repeatedly to weaknesses in the state’s legal process, including unreliability in forensic sciences. The commissioners concluded, “Based on its extensive review, the Commission views the role of forensic evidence and testimony in capital trials with serious concern.”
Potkin highlighted problems with use of eyewitness testimony, including in cases where witnesses are incentivized to support the prosecution’s position. Citing the commission’s report: “Of the 34 exonerations in homicide cases in Oklahoma, four — two capital and two non-capital — involved jailhouse informant testimony.” Jurors in the Jones case, she pointed out, were never given full details of the promises prosecutors made to Chris Jordan, co-defendant in the Jones prosecution. While more than 30 years of incarceration was Jordan’s stated prison term, he actually served half that amount.
A related systemic problem in capital cases is weak legal counsel for the defense, as Potkin stressed. Specifically in the Jones’ case, she noted, Jones’ defense lawyers “failed to adequately cross-examine the co-defendant, on the six different and inconsistent statements that he gave to the police after his arrest or demonstrate that he may have been the shooter and may have been testifying against Mr. Jones to avoid the death penalty.” And, “failed to present the testimony of two available witnesses who overheard Mr. Jordan bragging about having pinned his crime on Julius to avoid the death penalty, and with the assurance that he would serve just fifteen years in prison.” Further, they “failed to show the jury a photograph showing Mr. Jones’ very short, crew-cut hair at the time of the crime, proving he could not be the person who the victim’s sister described.”
Despite an earlier promise that Jones’ lawyers could examine files relating to the prosecution, that commitment was not fulfilled. The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission anticipated such lack of transparency, recommending, “All Oklahoma district attorneys’ offices and the Office of the Attorney General should be required to allow open-file discovery at all stages of a capital case, including during the direct appeal, state post-conviction review, federal habeas corpus review, and any clemency proceedings.”
Summing up the Commission’s recommendations, Potkin said, Oklahoma system is laced with problem touching on eyewitness identification, recorded interrogations, weak training in interrogation best practices, jailhouse informant reliability hearings & training (data tracking, including with officers), addressing faulty forensics, and avenues to get into court with evolving science.
Racial disparities apparent in Jones case
In her address, Potkin focused, as have other analysts, on evidence of racial animus in the Jones case, including retention of a juror who had used the “n-word” to assert Jones should be taken behind the jail and shot, and removal of all potential black jurors from the case (save one).
As the Commission concluded in its review, “In 1910, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) likewise recognized that race-based exclusion violates the Fourteenth Amendment. However, in practice, many jurisdictions across the nation routinely excluded — and often continue to exclude — blacks from jury service.”