Patrick B. McGuigan, Editorial Director, The City Sentinel
Critics of capital punishment and of Oklahoma’s death penalty process quickly embraced the 3-1 vote recommending commutation to Governor Kevin Stitt.
A spokesman for Stitt – who had defended his appointees to the Pardon and Parole panel as persons of integrity – said after the board vote the governor would not comment on the case until he announces his decision on the commutation request.
After the September 13 vote, defenders of Jones, and indeed advocates for his execution, pointed to past instances when chief executives have not followed commutation recommendations.
Before the commutation proceedings, Jones lawyers, legal analysts and journalists who have reported on the case anticipated that a vote favoring Jones in some form was possible, and perhaps likely.
However, the actual vote was a direct and practical affirmation of the impact that accumulating concrete evidence of Jones’ actual innocence had eroded the case for implementing the Ultimate Sanction, at least in this case.
While Oklahomans reaffirmed the death penalty in a statewide vote within the past decade, opinion polls have indicated a majority do not support Jones’ execution. And, overall support or the death penalty per se has eroded.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater had pressed to prevent a majority of the five-member board from even voting on the submitted commutation for Jones.
He sued Pardon and Parole Board members Kelly Doyle and Adam Luck and petitioned the state High Court to remove them from voting.
The state Supreme Court, in a succinct order issued September 10, slapped down the Prater litigation, with Chief Justice Noma D. Gurich writing, “Petitioner’s request for an order directing Respondents [Luck and Doyle] to refrain from participating in the commutation proceedings relating to Julius Darius Jones, including the commutation hearing … set for Monday, September 13, 2021, is hereby denied.”
Despite that Court denial, D.A. Prater sought the recusal of the board’s newest member, Scott Williams, asserting the Williams’ relationship with an attorney arguing in favor of Jones amounted to a conflict of interest.
Although not agreeing a conflict of interest existed, Williams announced he would not to vote on the Jones commutation matter.
The Pardon and Parole Board is a constitutional agency. The state’s chief executive has explicit constitutional powers in the death penalty process. Governors have power in most states that retain capital punishment to impede or prevent executions, or to impact their timing.
Governor Stitt’s nominees to the Pardon and Parole Board bring to the panel long-stated perspectives on criminal justice issues that incline toward reform of the state’s legal system, including the matter of capital punishment.
Aside from this particular case the controversy of recent months raised a lot of issues, including contentions that Jones must be executed for process reasons (finality of judgment) no matter what happened in the administrative process and in spite of evidence his attorneys have gathered that a person other than murdered Edmond civic leader Paul Howell in the driveway of his home in 1999.
Statutory and other provisions for pardon, parole and commutation – including for the execution process – have evolved in recent years, while remaining rooted in the state’s constitutional strictures.
In this proceeding, attacks and public pressure – on the governor’s appointment powers, on the Pardon and Parole Board as a body and on its individual members, and ultimately on the state chief executive’s powers – fell short.
NOTE: This opinion does not reflect the views of either of the co-publishers, who themselves have differing and nuanced views on the subject.