Patrick B. McGuigan, Publisher
OKLAHOMA CITY – Public policy development and administration is always a messy and tumultuous process. That has been particularly true of the drama surrounding the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board for several months.
One board member, Allen McCall, has been hip-deep in efforts (with others) to make life miserable for fellow board members.
Threats of retaliation against former Executive Director Steven Bickley led to his resignation in early August. (McCall has asserted Bickley had used derogatory language toward some staff, yet in public Judge McCall’s disagreement with criminal justice reform is clear.)
Also under the gun, so to speak: Board members Kelly Doyle and Adam Luck.
The latter two are arguably the most reform-minded members of the Pardon and Parole Board, but the truth is that other than McCall, all of the current members have appeared to be dutiful and hard-working in recent months. McCall himself has faced public demands to leave the board.
The board as presently composed hopefully reflects the efforts of Governor Kevin Stitt and others to reform the state criminal justice system.
The Oklahoma attorney general told the board they had the legal power to consider and to act upon death penalty cases. That was a relief after a few weeks of concern that allies of those fiercely opposed to criminal justice reform would pressure the P&P to stand down.
Despite the turmoil, the P&P Board has moved forward with plans carefully to study more possible routes to secure a more justice system. The march forward could
begin this fall and early winter.
Public Radio Tulsa reported, last month, the board had scaled back its earlier ambitions to consider as many as 400 cases– but slow and sure is no doubt the best path to reform and restoration of public confidence.
Whether or not I am overly optimistic, the dynamic at the Board is about to shift, hopefully for the better.
Barbara Hoberock of The Tulsa World reported there will be a new player at the Board meeting on Monday, September 14.
Tom Bates, both an attorney and a lawyer, will launch service as the new executive director at the Board.
P&P Chairman Robert Gilliland had high praise for the new hire: “We are very excited to have him. We feel like at this juncture in our history, he is the perfect person for the job. This will add some stability and credibility to the Pardon and Parole Board.”
Members of the Board met Thursday of this past week to make the selection.
Bates’ recent state government is as director of Governor Stitt’s Front Porch Initiative, seeking better coordination of state government health and human services agencies, Hoberock reported. He also served 15 years (1999-2014) in the state attorney general’s office.
Advocates for Julius Jones
Cece Jones-Davis of the “Justice for Julius” coalition brought new attention to the case with her rendition of the National Anthem on a recent sports broadcast, while wearing a Justice for Julius t-shirt. Her work has helped assure that the case remains in the consideration of citizens, in the midst of continued unrest across the nation.
Oklahomans involved in the recent anniversary recreation of the March on Washington assured advocacy for Jones was widespread at the widely-covered event.
The tidal wave of athletes speaking on his behalf in letters to the P&P Board has continued, with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott a prominent proponent.
Other athletes beloved for their sporting endeavors in Oklahoma have supported Jones, including Baker Mayfield, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, and Andre Roberson.
The Change.org petition supporting Julius’ petition for clemency has, to date, 6,040,140 signatures.
Julius Jones’ former high school teacher, John Thompson, recently restated his passionate support for his former pupil.
Time for Systemic Reforms
Without prejudging other death penalty cases, the board is encouraged to move seriously and soon on the most prominent death sentence laced with doubts about guilt and absolute certainty of bad process: the murder conviction and death sentence of Julius Jones.
The P&P Board should look anew at all the evidence in the case, including files that the current Oklahoma County District Attorney has failed to provide to the federal defense lawyers who have labored for years for a fresh look at the entire case.
The Jones trial was marred with multiple threads of poor performance, during the investigation the police were so aggressive as to raise questions of their professionalism, the jury pool was tainted with at least one instance of racial bias, and the quid pro quo deal with Jones’ friend has all the earmarks of the systemic issues addressed in the historic report of the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission.
As part of that commission’s historic work, multiple problems in the death penalty penalty process were laid bare. The most troubling, of course, is the possibility of past injustice and potential injustice of the worst kind.
Former Governor Brad Henry, who chaired the review process, said “It is undeniable that innocent people have been sentenced to death in Oklahoma. And the burden of wrongful convictions alone requires the systemic corrections recommended in this report.”
In the interest of justice and for the sake of all who honestly labor for justice, the first step here is commutation of the Jones sentence to time served (he’s been on death row since 2002).
There are golden nuggets of wisdom laced throughout the writings of William Shakespeare. In one of his historic dramas, a character reflects: “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”
Not every demand for change now swirling in contemporary social discourse and political activism is well-advised.
This demand, however, is just, wise, overdue and would advance a noble end.
It’s time – now: Justice for Julius.
NOTE: This commentary is expanded from the essay which first appeared in The City Sentinel newspaper’s September 2020 print edition.