By David M. Greenwald
Oklahoma, City – This week the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals set an executive date for Julius Jones for November 18, despite a September 13 action by the Oklahoma Board of Pardon and Parole who voted 3-1 in favor of Jones’s request for executive clemency.
The board’s recommendation was to commute the sentence to life without parole, and Governor Kevin Stitt would have to adopt that recommendation.
Jones’ attorneys presented strong evidence to the board of his actual innocence of the charges for which he was convicted in 2002, as well as evidence that racial bias played a role in his conviction and death sentence.
“After considering the voluminous evidence demonstrating that Julius was wrongfully convicted for a crime that occurred when he was just 19 years old, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended that Julius’s death sentence be commuted out of concern that the State of Oklahoma will be killing an innocent man if his execution is allowed to go forward,” Jones’s attorney Amanda Bass, Assistant Federal Public Defender said in a statement to the Vanguard this week. “The request is now on Governor Stitt’s desk. Given the setting of a November 18 execution date, it is our hope the Governor adopts the Board’s recommendation and commutes Julius’s death sentence. Oklahoma must not allow an innocent man to be executed.”
Concerns about actual innocence mark an important change in the way claims of innocence are viewed in the system. There is a recognition here that the system actually broke down and Jones was not provided the resources needed to hire a zealous advocate.
“I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubt, and put simply, I have doubts in this case,” said Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Chairman Adam Luck of the recommendation. “I cannot ignore those doubts, especially when the stakes are life and death.”
However, the Oklahoma Attorney General continues to believe that Jones is guilty of the crime and has requested the execution date, arguing there is “overwhelming evidence of guilt” and that DNA testing confirms the trial evidence.
But advocates argue that the DNA testing results were very limited, with a “complex mixture that contained profiles of 3 or more individuals.” The results of the saliva test were negative.
For their part, Jones maintains that he was at home having dinner with his parents and sister at the time of murder, but “his legal team failed to present his alibi at his original trial.”
The Innocence Project points out that his trial attorneys failed to call either Jones himself or his family members to the stand.
The sister of the victim told the Pardon and Parole Board, “I was there when my brother was murdered. I know beyond a doubt that Julius Jones murdered my brother.”
Eyewitness evidence is always tricky and the Innocence Project points out that Jones does not match the description of the person who committed the crime by the sole eyewitness.
“The person who killed Mr. Howell was described as having 1-2 inches of hair, but Mr. Jones had a shaved head,” they note.
Moreover, Christopher Jordan “matched the eyewitness’ hair description, but claimed only to have been the ‘getaway driver’ and not the shooter at trial. He was the State’s star witness against Mr. Jones.”
The “lab could not exclude Chris Jordan’s DNA from the 3 or more individuals whose DNA was found in the DNA sample.”
However, “In exchange for testifying that Mr. Jones was the shooter, Mr. Jordan was given a plea deal for his alleged role as the ‘getaway driver.’ He served 15 years in prison and, today, he is free.”
In fact, there are various witnesses that have come forward to testify that Christopher Jordan bragged about getting the 15-year deal in exchange for blaming Jones for something he actually did.
The Innocence Project adds, “Three people incarcerated with Mr. Jordan at different times have said in sworn affidavits that Mr. Jordan told each of them that he committed the murder and framed Mr. Jones. None of these three men have met Mr. Jones and they do not know one another. And none of them have been offered a shorter sentence or incentive in exchange for disclosing Mr. Jordan’s confessions.”
Jordan himself has denied this, testifying in court that, while he drove the vehicle with Jones, he did not shoot Howell.
“While I wish that I’d gone to the police with what I knew, I was scared to get involved,” Jones wrote in his commutation request. “I was, like other young black men in my neighborhood, afraid of the police, and I didn’t trust them.”
Jones’s attorneys claim race played a role as well, noting that 11 of the 12 jurors were white and that one of them should have been removed after another juror reported to the court that he said “they should put him [Jones] in a box and put him in the ground after this is all over for what he’s done.”
A juror also reported that jurors used racial slurs when referring to Jones during the trial.
Oklahoma has among the most restrictive post-conviction statutes in the country. These rules make it very difficult to get back into court in Oklahoma with new evidence, more so than almost anywhere in the country. The state has a 60-day clock on new evidence—meaning attorneys for those on death row have just 60 days to get back into court to present that evidence upon learning it.
That means that, realistically, the governor may now be the only avenue that Jones has to avoid execution.
In a statement from Amanda Bass, she told the Vanguard, “We are grateful that the Board recognized the compelling evidence of Julius’s wrongful conviction in voting to commute his death sentence, and are very hopeful that the Governor adopts that recommendation and spares an innocent man from execution.”