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COMMENTARY: In the search for justice, the job of advocates is to advocate

Oklahoma AG Mike Hunter speaking during his press conference on Monday, July 6. KOCO Screenshot
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter speaking during his press conference on Monday, July 6. KOCO Screenshot

By Patrick B. McGuigan


OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – In news parlance, state Attorney General Mike Hunter “drove the news cycle” on Monday, July 6.

In a passionate presentation, he pulled together (with backing materials for reporters and to the public) the government’s case against Julius Jones — who was sent to Oklahoma’s death row in 2002, and has been incarcerated for 21 years this month.

He minced no words, asserting Jones murdered Paul Howell of Edmond in front of family members. Referencing the worldwide campaign to gain exoneration for Jones, Hunter said, “No celebrity imploration or profusion of misinformation will change that.”

He said other things, including: “We’ve heard a lot recently from those advocating for his release. I’m here today to support the Howell family’s plea for justice. They are the victims in this case, and the pain of their loss is reawakened with each misguided public appeal on Jones’ behalf.”

It was one of Hunter’s strongest presentations as the state’s top law enforcement official.

I disagree with his conclusions.

Rev. T. Sheri Dickerson of the local affiliate Black Lives Matter OKC, delivered a compassionate response to Hunter. She described her own experience with the awful pain that only those who have lost a loved one to murder can truly understand.

She summarized her belief in the innocence of Julius Jones, and referred to a man who was a friend of Jones and who testified against Jones in the original trial. In exchange for his testimony, he served only 15 years. He has been free (and occasionally seen around town) for several years.

Hunter made his presentation. Dickerson restated her case for Jones’ innocence. On this one, I am with her.

Here is some of what Dale Baich, a member of the Jones’ legal team, said in response to Hunter:

Julius has never denied that, in his youth, he committed several, non-violent petty thefts which he has regretted ever since.

Prior to his arrest for the murder of Paul Howell, however, Julius had never committed or been charged with a violent crime. The Attorney General’s allegations that Julius was a violent criminal as a youth are just that: allegations. Moreover, these are the same allegations of uncharged, and unproved conduct that the prosecution paraded before Julius’s jury twenty years ago to argue that he deserved to die. It is disturbing that the Attorney General would portray Julius as a violent black youth based on allegations never proved in court.”

Baich also often pointed to the pattern of prosecutorial misconduct that arises in many cases of post-conviction exoneration. There have been 170 death row exonerations in the US – 10 of those  exonerations from Oklahoma.

“System racism” is a term often heard these days. In this case and others, my concern is with systemic problems facing the state’s death penalty process.

My perspective comes from reporting and studying detailed information about coerced confessions, problematic use of eyewitness testimony and other factors, many but not all touching on race. The definitive presentation on Oklahoma’s troubled capital punishment system remains the work of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission.

A.G. Hunter last week restated the state government’s support for the legal role the state’s Pardon and Parole Board can play in case reviews, including death penalty sentences.

Recently the district attorney of Payne and Logan counties asked two of Governor Kevin Stitt’s appointees on the P & P board to be removed, asserting their role as advocates for former prison inmates amounts to a conflict of interest.

Tuesday, diverse (to put it mildly) community, business, and faith leaders rose to defend Kelly Doyle and Adam Luck. They also called for the resignation of Judge Allen McCall from the P&P Board, McCall has slammed Doyle and Luck as part of a “social justice reform crowd.” (McCall said they should leave the P&P Board. He also threatened the P&P executive director, Steve Binkely, with a grand jury investigation unless he worked to prevent death row inmates from seeking commutation hearings.)

Monday, The Frontier reported that attorneys for death row inmates are working to stop resumption of the state’s lethal injection protocol.

To be sure, there’s a lot swirling around capital punishment issues right now.

REGARDING Attorney General Hunter: He believes some advocates for Julius Jones have gone beyond the bounds of fair scrutiny of the Jones conviction and subsequent events.

Hunter was blunt but measured in his tone on Monday.
He repeated things he had said before.
He did his job as he sees it, as an advocate.

I offer one more item for his consideration: The Oklahoma County District Attorney promised TWO years ago he would share the government’s prosecution file in the Jones case with the Jones’ legal team. He reneged. Hunter should encourage, publicly, the local DA to keep his promise.

“The Attorney General is looking backwards at what occurred at trial and is blindly ignoring what went wrong at the trial and the new evidence that has since been discovered and developed, Baich told The City Sentinel.   “He should be looking forward rather than be stuck in the past and use all means to try to uphold a wrongful conviction.”

The job of an advocate is to advocate, at the risk of repeating myself.

The P&P board should review evidence in all cases that come before it. For the capital cases, a review of the first of its kind, Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission report findings about coerced or pressured responses by accused and multiple other problems in the state’s system, including competency of past defense counsel.

Governor Kevin Stitt should continue his support for the Commission, including the appointment of people willing to look at available evidence.

To be fully transparent, I also encourage the governor to support commutation of the Jones sentence to time served.

As this present process unfolds, I hope the events of these past few years call us to something better.

It is time for an end to one era, and for the start of another.

Again, transparency about my hopes: No more executions in Oklahoma. Now and forever more.

(L-R) Oklahoma Pardon & Parole Board members Adam Luck, Larry Morris, Robert Gilliland, Allen McCall, and Kelly Doyle. KOCO video screenshot.
Sheri Dickerson of the local affiliate, Black Lives Matter OKC, delivered a compassionate response to AG Mike Hunter’s press conference regarding Julius Jones. KOCO screenshot.
Issued on April 25, 2017, after spending more than a year studying Oklahoma’s capital punishment practices, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, the first of its kind in the US, unanimously recommended that the state extend its current moratorium on executions “until significant reforms are accomplished.” Photo by Darla Shelden

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