By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – A clemency application recently filed on behalf of death row prisoner Julius Jones’ with the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board has launched an urgent letter writing, social media campaign.
The petition, filed on October 15 by Jones’ attorney Dale Baich, asks for the parole board to commute Jones’ death sentence to time served. Always maintaining his innocence, Jones has been on death row for 20 years.
Baich and co-counsel, Amanda Bass, both federal public defenders from Arizona, have worked since 2017 to save the life of Jones, who was accused, tried and convicted for the July 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Scott Howell.
Along with the petition, Baich filed several letters of support from community and faith leaders raising concerns noted in Jones’ clemency application, about never-considered evidence of racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct.
US Congresswoman Kendra Horn (D-Oklahoma); State Senator George Young (D-Oklahoma City); State Representative Jason Dunnington (D-Oklahoma City), Oklahoma County Commissioner Carrie Blumbert, a Democrat; Kris Steele, Executive Director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform; and Anthony R. Douglas, President of the NAACP State Conference have each written letters of support for Jones’ clemency petition.
The website, www.justiceforjulius.com, and its Facebook and Twitter platforms, encourages people who support Jones’ innocence to write letters to members of the Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole board and Governor Kevin Stitt, asking that they take another look at Jones’ case and support the clemency application.
On Twitter, Kim Kardashian West asked Gov. Stitt to “give thoughtful consideration to an Oklahoma death-row inmate’s petition for clemency.” Kim also tweeted contact information for Stitt and the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to her over 62 million Twitter followers who began asking how they can help Jones.
A recent letter of note was written by attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson, along with his staff, has won reversals, relief, or release from prison for over 135 wrongly convicted prisoners on death row.
“Given the risk of error, the certainty of racial animus and the facility of death, I urge you to commute Mr. Jones’ death sentence,” Stevenson wrote. “For every nine people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, one person has been identified as innocent. I have represented some of these men, and it took a firm commitment to the rule of law for justice to prevail. The authority to execute is an awesome power that must be wielded fairly and reliably. Mr. Jones’ fate is a test of our fidelity to these principles.”
Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City, issued a statement in response to the filing: “We must acknowledge the harm done to the victims of this crime and to society at large. We should stand for justice, but we can do that and protect society without resorting to the death penalty…Taking another life does not ultimately bring closure and peace to those who have lost a loved one. Justice is necessary, but it is not enough. Mercy perfects justice and brings healing. I urge the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to consider commuting the death sentence for Julius Jones.”
Jones case raised national attention in 2018 when ABC Television released the docu-series “The Last Defense,” produced by Academy Award winning actress Viola Davis. The documentary uncovered new evidence raising questions about how the trial was mishandled by both the prosecution and the inexperienced public defense team.
“The options available to Julius Jones to pursue claims related to his wrongful conviction and racism have been thwarted by the courts,” Baich told The City Sentinel. “Instead of looking at the merits of his claims, the courts repeatedly relied on procedural technicalities to avoid deciding these hard issues. We are now asking the Pardon and Parole Board to take a close and careful look at this case, and use their powers under Oklahoma law to right the numerous wrongs that the courts declined to address.”
A letter from Evangelical Leaders states, “From the start, [Mr. Jones’] case was riddled with racial discrimination. One juror reported that a fellow juror commented that the trial was a waste of time, and that “they should just take that n***** out and shoot him behind the jail.” [W]e are appalled that no action was taken to remove this juror. Racial bias has absolutely no place in our justice system.”
Witness to Innocence Executive Director Kirk Bloodsworth’s letter states, “Among the 166 people exonerated after a death sentence, for the 86 who are African American, implicit and overt racial bias led many jury members to ignore the doubts raised by weak witness testimony and lack of physical evidence, and sometimes even led them to be certain of the defendant’s guilt before the trial began….Racial bias was present in both the guilt-innocence and sentencing phases of Julius’ trial…Clemency at this stage is the only way to ensure that an innocent man is not executed.”
Marc Howard, Director of Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University posted on Facebook, “Julius is a wonderful, intelligent, caring, passionate, and unbelievably resilient person…He was wrongfully convicted after a sham of a trial that had all the classic ingredients: vindictive prosecutor, racist jury, lying witness, and incompetent trial counsel. Anyone who seriously examines this case realizes that Julius Jones is innocent.”
The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board will determine whether Jones’ application for clemency will be permitted to advance and have additional materials submitted.
“Under Oklahoma law, an in-custody prisoner can only ask for the sentence to be commuted,” Baich added. “This is the only relief now available in the clemency process and that is why Julius is asking for his death sentence to be commuted to time served. If he is released from prison, he can later ask for a pardon.
“The Pardon and Parole Board can use its power and authority to look at this case, unrestrained by the procedural barriers that constrained the courts,” Baich said. “The Board can ask why the district attorney continues to refuse to make his file available to Julius’s defense team.”
As reported by The City Sentinel in September 2018, during a discussion between District Attorney David Prater, and Baich, Oklahoma attorney Mark Barrett and New York attorney Michael Robles (both representing Jones), the state agreed to make its file on Jones available for inspection, which has never been released.
That commitment was not fulfilled.
The Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission report, released in May 2017, 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.”
A screening of The Last Defense was recently hosted by the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. Attendees lined up to sign the petition, picked up handout materials, and participated in the Q&A session.
“The screening at UCO went exceptionally well and the dialogue by the students was rich and impressive,” said Jimmy Lawson, Julius’ longtime friend and panelist that evening. “They were engaged the entire time and couldn’t believe the miscarriage of justice in Julius’ case. We encouraged all attendees to write the OK Pardon and Parole Board and Gov. Stitt supporting Julius’s clemency request.”
Gov. Stitt’s office has released the following statement, “We are continuing to actively listen to Oklahomans and those involved in the Julius Jones case and wait for the pardon and parole board’s recommendation.”
Cece Jones-Davis, Julius Jones Thank Tank curator stated, “Our state has made great strides in criminal justice reform efforts, but we need Julius back. We ask everyone who supports Julius’ case to visit www.justiceforJulius.com and send an e-letter to the Pardon & Parole Board and Gov. Stitt”