Death row inmate Julius Jones is a prime example of Oklahoma’s failing justice system

The Oklahoma Pardons and Parole Board is to be applauded for recommending clemency for Julius Jones, but the fight is not over. The Council voted 3-1 today to commute Julius Jones’ death sentence to life with the possibility of parole. Jones served 22 years and would be eligible for parole immediately.

Gov. Kevin Stitt still has to approve the request, and he’s free to commute the sentence to time served, which would mean Jones’ immediate release, or life without parole, or anywhere in between.

We don’t know what to expect from Stitt. Two of the three members he appointed to the board, Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle, voted in favor of clemency today. The third, Scott Williams, recused himself. Luck and Doyle also voted in favor of clemency for John Marion Grant on October 5, but were in the 2-3 minority, and Grant was executed Thursday in the death penalty trial in Oklahoma after a six-year moratorium in due to botched executions. According to eyewitness accounts, Grant suffered from 24 body seizures and vomited repeatedly for ten minutes after the administration of the first drug, midazolam.

The new composition of the board gives us hope. Luck and Doyle have backgrounds in criminal justice reform and working with the homeless, as well as prisoner rehabilitation. Larry Morris, who also voted for clemency for Jones, is trained as a juvenile counselor and social worker. In the past, the council was dominated by former prosecutors and judges, who rarely recommended leniency. Indeed, he has only recommended leniency three times in the past ten years, and all three requests were turned down by then governor Mary Fallin. The last time a governor commuted a death sentence was in 2010.

Oklahoma’s criminal justice system is failing: the state leads the country in terms of executions per capita and is second in the country in terms of incarceration rate. And the Jones case is a good example of Oklahoma’s failed system. Bob Macy sent 54 people to death row during his 21 years as a district attorney for Oklahoma County, the state’s largest county. Macy appeared at the crime scene the day after Paul Howell was murdered and announced he would seek the death penalty. An arrest had not yet been made. All Macy knew was that it was a black and white crime in Edmond, Oklahoma, a prosperous and predominantly white suburb of Oklahoma City.

Would the death penalty have been demanded for Julius Jones if this crime had been committed in a less wealthy, less white suburb or in the city center? A recent study showed that the death penalty was requested and obtained in only 3% of homicide cases in Oklahoma from 1988 to 2012. The death penalty is rarely but always arbitrary. He’s supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst, but too much leeway is left to prosecutors.

Jones’ appeal for clemency was based entirely on his claim that he was innocent. Thirty other death row inmates have exhausted their remedies and may see their execution scheduled. Only three or four of them claimed innocence. The others will ask for mercy. Many of them have mental health issues and suffered physical and sexual abuse as children.

If we put aside the question of whether Jones is innocent, the state’s own evidence was that the gun pointed at Paul Howell “just exploded.” This is the testimony of Chris Jordan, who pleaded guilty to participating in the murder. Is this the worst of the worst? A car hijacking went wrong and the gun just exploded?

The General Counsel argued at length during today’s hearing that Julius Jones was a member of a gang in the 1990s and had gang tattoos. These are racist whistles.

We cautiously hope that Stitt will approve the pardon request. He campaigned as a successful businessman, and CEOs usually follow the recommendations of their boards.

Stitt has a chance to establish himself as a Conservative ready to make real criminal justice reform. The Pardons and Parole Board seems prepared to show leniency towards death row inmates. We can only hope that Stitt will support his board. It will be a good start to rebuilding Oklahoma’s broken criminal justice system. Otherwise, we risk up to 30 executions next year.

Don Heath is president of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. He is also a minister of a Disciples of Christ congregation in Edmond, Oklahoma.

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