By Rory Fleming
Julius Jones said he did not commit the murder of businessman Paul Howell from the beginning, but that did not stop former Oklahoma City DA “Cowboy” Bob Macy from prosecuting him for it. Macy notoriously put more people on death row than any other prosecutor in America, if not the world. About half of his capital verdicts were later reversed, and three of the condemned have since been exonerated.
Two decades later, millions pleaded with Governor Kevin Stitt to grant Jones clemency before his execution. Governor Stitt did so, but in his executive order, he attached a strange condition to this seeming act of mercy. “I…hereby commute the death sentence of Julius Darius Jones to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, on the conditions that he shall never again be eligible to apply for, be considered for, or receive any additional commutation, pardon, or parole,” reads the document.
The anti-death penalty debate in the US has long been framed as a matter of death or life without parole, also known as death by incarceration. As a result, the use of death by incarceration sentences has quadrupled since 1984; not counting de facto life sentences, about 50,000 people are serving these sentences today. Before then, years in prison for a murder could sometimes be measured by single digits, while states with harsher statutory schemes were much more generous with clemency than they are today.
Since there has been so little research done on the issue, it is hard to know if murders victims’ families were less retributive in the post-war period until the 1980s, or whether they simply did not expect their desires to be met by the government so they did not speak up. What we do know is that such exhibitions of mercy would be hard to swallow by the American public today. That acknowledged, there are reasons to suspect that this is not the end of the Julius Jones case, even if cultural norms surrounding severe punishment for serious crimes do not change much in the future.
Jones proclaims that he is innocent, and there are reasons to think he might be. His co-defendant blamed him for the murder—in exchange, he was sentenced to only fifteen years and was later freed. He had an alibi that was not presented at trial, and a witness description of the perpetrator did not fit his appearance at the time.
Thus, the question must be asked: Could the limitation on future governors found in Governor Stitt’s executive order hold legal water?
Legal experts seem doubtful. Ohio State law professor Douglas Berman, perhaps the foremost expert in sentencing law in the country, wrote on his blog that he “do[es] not think there is any legal basis for a current governor to tie the hands of all future governors in this (sic) way.” A provision of the state’s administrative code bars Jones from applying for an additional grant of clemency, but it does not explicitly cover more mercy from a future governor in the same case.
Perhaps there is some merit to finality in judgments in criminal cases. Victims and their family members can be harmed by the repeated reopening of cases that traumatized them. But the justice system should recognize that people grow and change. Importantly, it should always remain ready to fix injustices that it has created, such as wrongful imprisonments of innocent people.
Without a full examination of the record, or perhaps even being there, it is extremely difficult to opine on Jones’s innocence or guilt. But to close the door preemptively would be morally reprehensible. Luckily, it seems like this Governor’s limited mercy was a non-binding maneuver to appease both sides.
Rory is a writer and licensed attorney.