Julius Jones, the Oklahoma death row prisoner whose innocence claim stemming from a 1999 murder conviction drew massive attention in the wake of the George Floyd killing, has passed a major threshold that will allow him to plead his innocence claim directly to the state’s Pardon and Parole Board.
In a 3-1 vote Monday, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board moved Jones’s case to a second stage of review in which his claim will be assessed in depth and Jones will have an opportunity never afforded during his original 1999 murder trial: the chance to speak in his own defense.
Jones still faces two more hurdles in his bid for a commutation, which gained new urgency after Oklahoma announced it would resume executions after a six-year hiatus. In the next stage, at least three members of the Pardon and Parole Board must vote in favor of recommending a commutation to the governor. In Oklahoma, the governor can act only on commutations recommended by the board but also has the right to take no action on recommendations.
A spokesperson for Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) told The Washington Post that the governor’s office follows the recommendations of the board “an overwhelming majority of the time” but noted that this is the first death penalty case the board has considered under Stitt’s tenure.
Jones, 40, has maintained his innocence since we was arrested and convicted at age 19 for the murder of Paul Howell, a business executive in Edmond, Okla.
Jones’s family said he was with them the night of the murder but were never called in his original trial to testify.
Jones’s post-conviction defense team has cited a range of inconsistencies and alleged racial bias in the original trial that left Jones with a death sentence. The defense has alleged that his co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, was given a secret favorable deal with prosecutors in exchange for implicating Jones. Jordan served a 15-year sentence and was released in 2014. He could not be reached for comment.
Last year, an Arkansas prisoner contacted Jones’s lawyers with a shocking claim: That in 2009, while he and Jordan were serving time together, Jordan confessed to Howell’s murder — and that his co-defendant caught the capital conviction instead. It was the third time someone in custody with Jordan gave sworn testimony of a confession from Jordan. The Arkansan prisoner, Roderick Wesley, said in letters shared with The Post that he did not make the connection to Jordan’s confession in 2009 until he happened to see an ABC documentary series about Jones’s case that aired last year.
Dale Baich, Jones’s attorney, praised the board’s decision Monday.
“We are thrilled that the Board has agreed to consider the growing body of evidence that Julius is innocent, and convinced that any fair and impartial review of the facts of the case will result in the commutation of his sentence and his release from prison,” he said in a statement.
Given the alleged confessions by Jordan, Baich called it “unimaginable” that the state would attempt to move forward with executing Jones.
Oklahoma paused its death penalty in 2015 after several botched executions that later came before the U.S. Supreme Court. The state is now looking to resume executions, creating the potential that Jones could be scheduled for execution as early as this year.
The Oklahoma County District Attorney’s Office, which secured Jones’s original 1999 conviction and death sentence, has stood by its case and petitioned the Pardon and Parole Board to deny Jones a commutation.
Late Thursday, Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater demanded that Pardon and Parole Board member Adam Luck recuse himself from Jones’s Monday hearing and accused Luck of “bias.”
Prater pointed to the fact that Luck in 2019 retweeted Kim Kardashian West (“one of Offender Jones’s most high-profile advocates”) as part of a 13-part thread in which Luck detailed Oklahoma’s commutation process. Luck regularly tweets updates about cases coming before the board. He did not recuse himself Monday.
The profile of Jones’s case grew dramatically after the 2020 broadcast of “The Last Defense,” an ABC documentary special co-produced by actor Viola Davis, and the case received national attention following the wave of scrutiny over racial bias in the criminal justice system in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last May.
The Rev. Cece Jones-Davis, an Oklahoma activist who led a petition drive calling for Jones to be freed, said the board’s decision on Monday shows the attention to his case is making a difference.
“The whole world is watching this case,” Jones-Davis said in a statement. “They want to know if Oklahoma is a place where justice and truth prevail. Today we took a step in the right direction.”