Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board voted on Monday to recommend clemency and commute the sentence of a Black man who has been on death row for nearly two decades and always maintained his innocence.
“I continue to believe that there is doubt in this case in which the ultimate punishment should not be utilized,” board member Kelly Doyle said, rendering her vote in the 3-1 decision.
She was joined by board members Adam Luck and Larry Morris who voted in favor of clemency and commuting Julius Jones’ death sentence to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. Board member Richard Smothermon, who was appointed to the Pardon and Parole Board by the Supreme Court of Oklahoma in July, voted against it. The final decision about whether to grant Jones clemency or commute his sentence is now in the hands of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.
In an emotional statement after the hearing, Jones’ sister, Antoinette Jones, thanked the parole board for “seeing that there was a grave mistake and that it should be fixed,” while urging Stitt to “take all evidence [into] consideration,” and adopt the parole board’s recommendation for her brother.
After 22 years on death row, Jones, now 41, is just weeks away from his scheduled Nov. 18 execution in connection with the murder of 45-year-old Paul Howell during a carjacking plot in 1999. Jones has insisted he was set up by Howell’s killer, a friend who testified against him at trial, and claimed the murder weapon that was found wrapped in a bandana in his parents’ house was planted there.
Jones, who was 19 when he was arrested for Howell’s murder, has spent half his life in prison and told the board on Monday that he was neither involved in the planning of the robbery that led to Howell’s death nor had he been present at the time of the shooting in Howell’s driveway.
“I am here before you today to tell what I never got to tell the jury during my trial,” Jones said during roughly 17 minutes of testimony on Monday. “Yes, I’ve made many mistakes in my youth, but I did not kill Mr. Paul Howell.”
Jones insisted on Monday that he had been discouraged from offering testimony over concerns that he might appear too emotional before a jury decided his fate during his 2002 trial.
After the board recommended during a September hearing that Jones’ sentence be commuted, Stitt scheduled a clemency hearing for a “more intensive and thorough” review that would allow Jones and Howell’s family to speak.
A petition for Jones’ clemency states that Jones shouldn’t be executed due to “fundamental breakdowns in the system tasked with deciding” his guilt based on a “fundamentally flawed and incomplete record.” The petition cited “inexperienced, overworked, and under-resourced public defense counsel” who failed to put the prosecution’s case to the test, in addition to alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
Jones appeared to advance those claims on Monday, insisting that while he had a history of larceny, he had “never accosted people” and that his lead attorney, David McKenzie, “rested my case without consulting me at all.”
Ahead of Monday’s hearing, the state had stood by its prosecution of Jones, citing DNA evidence, multiple eyewitnesses, and an existing criminal record as supporting the case that Jones had murdered Howell.
“The narrative Jones and his defense team have fed the media is absolutely false,” a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office said during the hearing. “The jury got it right. Clemency should be denied.”
Jones’ case has drawn national attention in recent years, including from celebrities like Kim Kardashian West, and more than 6.4 million people have signed a Change.org petition in support of Jones, much to the frustration of Howell’s family.
“The defenders of Julius Jones have repeatedly and consistently been proven to be untruthful and unethical, and they continue to rely on false information regarding this case,” Brian Howell, Paul Howell’s brother said at the hearing Monday, describing a social media campaign supporting Jones that he said was full of “lies and unethical tactics.”
“Julius Jones was never an innocent bystander, duped and framed for the murder of my brother, as the lies of his defenders would have you believe,” Howell added. “He was and continues to be a pathological liar, a violent sociopath, and a gang member, and a coward that refuses to accept responsibility for his actions and his criminal behavior.”
Paul Howell’s family and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, meanwhile, have pushed back on claims of Jones’ innocence, even suggesting that advocates have misappropriated the Black Lives Matter movement in an effort to help Jones to skirt accountability.
Rachel Howell, the slain man’s daughter, read a letter from an individual she described as a former “Justice for Julius” supporter who told her the campaign had wrongly painted her family as racist.
“They have framed it as a black versus white thing,” she said, quoting the letter. “I think Julius and family and friends, they have taken advantage of the BLM movement, turned it into a weapon, it’s a gross distortion.”
Howell’s sister and two daughters were with him when he was shot and later died from his injuries on July 28, 1999.
According to court documents, Howell’s sister heard a gunshot as she climbed out of the car and later described seeing a shooter who she described as a Black man in jeans and a white T-shirt, with a black cap and a red bandana over his face, CNN reported. The shooter fired another shot as Howell's sister and his daughters scurried to safety into the house, court documents state, per CNN.
Jones’ lawyers have contended that Jones had been at his parents home on the night of Howell’s murder and that jurors were missing important information at the time of his conviction, including that the state’s case had relied heavily on the testimony of professional informants who were involved in the carjacking plot that cost Howell’s life.
Paul Howell’s girlfriend, Connie Ellison, told an appeals board that lingering doubt over the investigation and prosecution of Jones’ execution was reason not to go ahead with execution.
In spite of the risk that speaking out could ruin her relationship with her slain boyfriend’s family, Ellison said Monday that she had chosen to testify in Jones’ defense at the appeal because there are “too many questions and too much doubt about Julius’ guilt to allow the state of Oklahoma to execute him in just over 2 weeks.”
“I believe in my heart that Julius Jones does not deserve death at the hands of other human beings who might even have doubts of their own,” she said. “It would be a catastrophic mistake to execute a man whose guilt is not conclusive. I believe that Paul Howell would not want that, and neither do I.”
The board’s vote Monday came just days after the state executed 60-year-old John Grant—its first prisoner to be executed by lethal injection in more than six years.
On Monday, Jones said that he has “carried the weight” of the Howell family “hating me for something I didn’t even do” for 22 years.
“I know I have broken the law, but I have never been a violent man,” he said. “I just want the family to know that I do recognize their loss and that I hope that at some point they get to heal.”