Convicted killer Julius Jones received a second chance Monday when the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board vote to recommend clemency and recommend thaP his death sentence be switched to life in prison with the chance of parole.
The board voted 3-1 with former prosecutor Richard Smotherman voting against clemency. The sentence recommendation will be presented to Gov. Kevin Stitt, who will make the final decision within the next 90 days.
Clemency is a method of granting a person convicted of a criminal offense relief from a court-ordered sentence or punitive measure. There are two main methods through which clemency can be given—pardon or commutation of sentence. The board voted in September for commutation, which means Jones’ death penalty sentence could be lowered by Stitt, who chose not to act until after the clemency hearing.
During Monday’s 3 ½ hour hearing, board members heard from Jones’ legal counsel Amanda Bass, who said lawmen, prosecutors and a jury verdict “senselessly robbed” her client of his life 22 years ago with Jones serving 20 years on Oklahoma’s death row. Jones was convicted in 2002 by a jury which included 11 whites.
Much of the hearing centered on Christopher Jordan, Jones’ co-defendant in the 1999 slaying of Edmond businessman Paul Howell. Jordan admitted in prison to killing Howell and letting Jones take the fall for the crime, according to a series of letters and video interviews between Arkansas inmate Roderick Wesley and Jones’ attorneys. Wesley and Jordan served time in an Arkansas prison, according to a report in The Frontier.
Jordan served 15 years of a 30-year sentence for his part as the get-away driver in Howell’s slaying.
Bass criticized police detectives and prosecutors for coaching Jordan on his testimony against Jones, the use of professional informants, prosecutorial misconduct, “junk forensic science,” and overworked public defenders who failed Jones at his trial.
“The criminal justice system failed Mr. Howell and it also failed Julius by condemning him for something he did not do,” Bass told the parole board.
Bass’ presentation to the board included “key pieces of evidence” the jury was not allowed to hear, including a photo of Jones weeks before the shooting and testimony from “several people who heard” Jordan brag about killing Howell.
Bass also reminded the parole board that racial prejudice was prevalent during Jones’ trial when a white juror referred to Jones as a “n-----“ who “should have been taken out back and shot.” Defense attorneys requested a hearing on the juror’s comment but it was denied.
Defense attorneys pointed to Jordan as the person who reportedly planted a red bandana and the gun used in the shooting in a bedroom attic at Jones’ parents’ home. Jordan and Jones knew each other when they attended John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City and later reconnected after Jones dropped out of college.
Jones’ case, which has attracted national and international attention from celebrities including Dr. Phil, Kim Kardashian-West and Late, Late Show host James Corden, brought about a Justice for Julius movement that included marches and internet petitions.
On Monday, Jones testified from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary that he had no part in Howell’s shooting and regretted his relationship with Jordan.
“I am not the person responsible for this killing,” he said. “I feel for the Howell family.”
Jones testified he was at his parents’ home when Howell was shot. Jones claimed he did not testify at his trial on the advice of legal counsel David McKenzie, who reportedly told his client not to show any emotion in the courtroom or it would be held against him.
Jones admitted he committed larcenies as a youngster, but has “never been a violent man,” and added he didn’t know Howell had been killed “until after the fact.”
Board member Smotherman said before voting on the clemency issue that he did not hear any mitigation from Jones or his attorneys “and that disappointed me. To believe Mr. Jones’ theory of the case, you have to disbelief everyone else.”
In his last remarks to the board, Jones said he would work with youth, if freed, and help them realize their errors if they associate with the wrong people.
Attorneys for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office tried to convince the board that 21 issues raised on appeal were sufficient evidence to deny clemency, including four petitions sent to the U.S. Supreme Court. Attorneys for the state said Jones became affiliated with a gang while in prison, used another inmates’ pin to make telephone calls and pointed out his previous larceny convictions.
Four Howell family members spoke to the board, urging them to deny clemency while claiming Jones has shown no guilt, shame or remorse. They also said Jones’ supporters have “spread lies” and distorted the truth. Paul Howell’s brother, Brian Howell, labeled Jones’ supporters and attorneys as “unethical.”
Howell’s daughter, Rachel Howell, said Jones’ supporters put on a “misleading campaign” that manipulated the public’s perception of the case.