The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board voted Monday to recommend Gov. Kevin Stitt commute the death sentence of Julius Jones for a 1999 killing that has garnered national attention.
The board, on a vote of 3-1, recommended Jones' death sentence be reduced and changed to life with the possibility of parole. Parole board members Adam Luck, Larry Morris and Kelly Doyle voted in favor of recommending commutation, while Richard Smothermon voted against.
Board member Scott Williams recused himself because of a professional relationship he had with one of the attorneys who spoke on Jones’ behalf
“I just don’t have the words to say,” Madeline Davis-Jones, mother of Julius Jones, said after the board voted. “I don’t know how I was feeling. I was just in a good place.”
Jones, 41, is facing execution for the fatal shooting of Edmond insurance executive Paul Howell during a carjacking. Jurors chose the death penalty as punishment at a 2002 trial.
After listening Monday to emotional appeals from Howell’s family, and legal points from a prosecutor and a defense attorney, Luck said the board is not a court or jury, but “quite simply, I have doubts about this case.”
If Stitt commutes Jones' sentence, he could be immediately eligible for parole because of the jail time he's already served. However, Stitt could also choose to commute the sentence to life without parole.
"The governor takes his role in this process seriously and will carefully consider the Pardon and Parole Board's recommendation as he does in all cases," Stitt's office said Monday after the hearing. "We will not have any further comment until the governor has made a decision."
Jones was 19 at the time of his arrest. He claims he is innocent and was framed by the actual killer.
Howell was gunned down in his parents' driveway in Edmond after a back-to-school shopping trip with his daughters.
Rachel Howell, one of Paul Howell's daughters, told the board she was in the backseat of the family vehicle when she saw Jones walk by.
“I waved at him, like any innocent child would,” she said.
A moment later, she heard a gunshot.
Megan Toby, Paul Howell’s sister, said she heard the shot when she was exiting the passenger side of the vehicle.
“As I was rushing the girls to safety, Jones yelled ‘stop’” and shot again, Toby said.
Toby said she has experienced “a whole new level of fear,” since Jones wrote her a letter, apparently having found her address.
“At 74, I never thought I’d be scared to go out in public,” she told the board.
Jones’ innocence claim has attracted support from celebrities and well-known athletes.
Millions signed a petition in Jones' support after ABC in 2018 aired the documentary series, "The Last Defense," about his innocence claim. His supporters include celebrity Kim Kardashian, who visited him last year at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
Jones’ case also saw increased urgency recently after Oklahoma’s attorney general requested to schedule execution dates for seven death row prisoners, including Jones.
“We should not allow the state to kill anybody without shining a spotlight on it,” said Abraham Bonowitz, executive director of Death Penalty Action, an organization calling for the abolition of capital punishment.
"Why does my trauma have to be entertainment for people?" Rachel Howell told the board. "How can I have love and compassion for Julius Jones?"
Jones' case rehashed for parole board
Attorneys on both sides of the case presented their case to the board Monday, with much of the discussion rehashing court arguments and recent claims from the Jones camp.
Jones could not appear before the board because of prison misconduct allegations, according to Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater. The Frontier, an Oklahoma news website, reported Jones was in possession of a cell phone charger and made an unauthorized conference call.
"The truth is: I did not kill Mr. Howell," Jones wrote in a letter to the board. "I did not participate in any way in his murder; and the first time I saw him was on television when his death was reported."
In the letter, Jones said he was never given a chance to share his alibi, and "despite the fact that I was at home with my siblings and parents during the time of the murder, my lawyer never saw fit to call them to the stand."
Prosecutors pointed out to the parole board that his own trial attorneys testified Jones said he wasn't home.
Jones was directly implicated at trial in the fatal shooting by his friend, Christopher Jordan. Under a plea agreement, Jordan pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit a robbery for his role and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Jones claims Jordan is the actual killer and framed him to get a deal.
"There are multiple men who did time with Christopher Jordan who reveal that Jordan regularly and casually confessed to killing Paul Howell," Jones wrote.
Prosecutors have countered that the new witnesses are not believable. In the days before murdering Howell, Jones committed an armed robbery at the Royal Jewelers jewelry store inside Quail Springs Mall by placing a gun to the store owner’s head according to prosecutors.
A couple weeks later, Jones committed back-to-back carjackings at Hideaway Pizza in Oklahoma City.
“This was a young man who had been involved in a long, escalating (process) of violence,” Elliott said.
Amanda Bass, a public defender for Jones, told the board Howell’s murder was “tragic and senseless,” and the Jones’ family is troubled by what happened and the “unfathomable” suffering of Howell’s family.
However, Bass said, “justice will not be served by executing an innocent man.”
Bass said Jones’ conviction and death sentence was the result of systemic racism, under-resourced and inexperienced public defenders, prosecutorial misconduct and junk science.
Jones didn’t match an eyewitness description, was home when the murder took place and was the not the killer, she said. That would be Jordan, Bass said.
Justice for Julius Jones director: ' I am extremely grateful'
Family, friends and supporters reiterated their steadfast support for Jones on Monday.
“I love him and I know they’re going to do it right,” Davis-Jones said of her son. “All of these years have felt like a test. Sometimes, we have to keep taking a test until we get it right. This time, God turned it around. I think we’re on the right track.”
Around 150 supporters of Jones marched from Tabernacle Baptist Church of Oklahoma City to Evangelistic Baptist Church of Christ, gathering in the church parking lot to listen to a stream of the Pardon and Parole Board hearing being held across the street.
“I am extremely grateful,” said Reverend Cece Jones-Davis, director of the Justice for Julius campaign. “I think (the board) heard well. I think they discerned well. I think they came to the conclusion that we’ve been all crying out for the last three years.”
State Senator George Young, D-Oklahoma City, spoke on Jones’ behalf at the hearing. Young said Jones had spent much of a meeting with Young expressing a desire to work with at-risk youth.
“Twenty years has changed him,” Young said. “I had to try to convey who he was, the man that he is today. He asked me to speak for him, and if I made a difference, I give glory to God. I did my job.”
Advocates for Jones were cheering and clapping, hugging one another while also shedding tears. Many vehicles that passed by the gathering were also heard honking in support.
Antoinette Jones, Julius’ sister, has been advocating for her brother’s innocence for more than two decades. “I’m very grateful to the Pardon and Parole Board for seeing the human that my brother is,” Jones said.
Supporters of Jones said they do not want their celebration of Jones’ potential commutation to be misinterpreted as dismissal of the Howell family’s pain. Jones’ mother said she prays for the Howell family just as much as she does for her own.
“We feel pain just like they do,” Davis-Jones said. “This is one step forward, but we have a few more to make.”
Howell family 'devastated' by parole board's decision
“As the family of Paul Howell, we are devastated by the decision reached today by the pardon and parole board,” Brian Howell, a brother of Paul, said in a prepared statement following the hearing. “Our family continues to be victimized by Julius Jones and his lies.”
Brian Howell said the board broke its rules to accommodate Jones throughout the process.
“We had hoped against all odds that we would receive a fair hearing today,” Howell said. “It became very apparent before the state of Oklahoma even began its arguments that the Pardon and Parole Board had no intention of following its own stated rules regarding the providing of false information and not re-litigating facts available to the jury and reviewed by the appellate process.”
Howell compared the public relations campaign for Jones to a battle of David and Goliath proportions. He said that was something the family never expected and "certainly weren't prepared to counter."
Prater said justice has been subverted by celebrity, money and politics.
"We are calling on the governor and (we) pray that he will have a moment of clarity to look into this case, realize that there's overwhelming guilt, overwhelming evidence of guilt," Prater said.
Contributing: Nolan Clay, The Oklahoman
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Julius Jones' death sentence should be commuted, Oklahoma board says