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Oklahoma will not execute Julius Jones, but the outcome should still trouble you

Jones, who claims he is innocent, will remain in prison for life in a case that attracted a crush of national attention. The state has yet to reckon with its history of horrific lethal injections.

Protesters march down a city street carrying a banner that reads “Justice for Julius.”
Supporters of Julius Jones, who has been on death row in Oklahoma since 1999, marched to the parole board offices in Oklahoma City on February 25, where they presented a petition with over 6.2 million signatures calling for Jones’s sentence to be commuted.
Sue Ogrocki/AP

In a dramatic, eleventh-hour move, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) on Thursday granted clemency to Julius Jones mere hours before Jones was scheduled to be executed for the 1999 murder and carjacking of businessman Paul Howell. Jones, 41, had spent nearly 20 years on death row professing his innocence. Following a crush of national attention as athletes, activists, celebrities, and even fellow Republican lawmakers appealed loudly on Jones’s behalf, Stitt reduced Jones’s sentence to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

“After prayerful consideration and reviewing materials presented by all sides of this case, I have determined to commute Julius Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” the governor said in a statement released by his office.

In short: Stitt spared Jones’s life, but wants him incarcerated for the duration of it. That represents a different sort of death sentence. It also signals an incomplete victory for both sides of this case: Jones’s advocates are happy he’s alive, but lament his inability to now argue for release; Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor condemned the decision, saying in a statement that he is “greatly disappointed that after 22 years, four appeals, including the review of 13 appellate judges, the work of the investigators, prosecutors, jurors, and the trial judge have been set aside.”

The commutation was also only a partial acceptance of the recommendation earlier this month from the state’s Pardon and Parole Board that Jones be granted clemency and have the chance to be eligible for immediate parole. Members of the board cited doubts about the evidence in the case, which has been controversial from the start.

Jones has always maintained his innocence, arguing that he was not even present at the scene of the killing and that his defense made a number of mistakes. The late Oklahoma County prosecutor “Cowboy” Bob Macy, who first brought the case against Jones, had a sordid record that’s been the subject of much scrutiny from academics, the press, and a 2018 ABC documentary about the Jones case, The Last Defense.

Alarm over Jones’s planned execution had been mounting in part because officials on the state’s parole board have publicly questioned the state’s lethal injection process. One official said Wednesday about another case, “I don’t think that any humane society ought to be executing people that way until we figure out how to do it right.”

Stitt’s statement did not mention the controversies surrounding Oklahoma’s lethal injections or the fate of a slate of incarcerated individuals who remain scheduled to be executed.

Members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board listen as the family of Paul Howell testifies at a commutation hearing for Julius Jones in Oklahoma City on September 13.
Sue Ogrocki/AP

Oklahoma, one of 27 states with the death penalty, has been among those with the highest number of executions since the US Supreme Court reaffirmed the legality of capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia in 1976. After Oklahoma’s lethal injection drug protocols caused two grisly deaths and a last-minute pharmaceutical error was found before the execution of a man whose guilt was in doubt, a six-year moratorium on executions in the state was instated in 2015.

State prosecutors had pledged to continue the moratorium at least until a federal trial next year examined the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s execution practices. But the state recently began plowing ahead with the planned executions of several people in coming months, including Jones. The last man who died by lethal injection in Oklahoma, John Marion Grant, convulsed and vomited for several minutes following the administration of a sedative on October 28 — only heightening concerns about lethal injection practices.

No matter where the governor or anyone else stands on the question of capital punishment as a practice, questions about the drugs the state is continuing to use should have us asking: Does Oklahoma have any business executing people right now?

From the start, Julius Jones has said he didn’t do it

On July 28, 1999, businessman Paul Howell was shot to death outside his parents’ home in the predominantly white city of Edmond, Oklahoma, in front of his two young children. Howell’s GMC Suburban then went missing.

Julius Jones, a 19-year-old engineering student at the University of Oklahoma at the time of the killing, has maintained he is innocent since his arrest three days after the shooting. “As God is my witness, I was not involved in any way in the crimes that led to Howell being shot and killed,” Jones wrote in his clemency report. “I have spent the past 20 years on death row for a crime I did not commit, did not witness and was not at.”

Outspoken celebrity advocates for Jones over the years have included Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who has advocated for Jones for years. He choked back tears this week when speaking about the case. Mayfield, who won a Heisman Trophy at the University of Oklahoma, told the press he’s “been trying to get the facts stated and the truth to be told for a while.”

Calls for mercy for Jones this week came from millions of online petitioners. Joining Mayfield in his advocacy for Jones were NBA players Trae Young, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, and Buddy Hield, all of whom have Oklahoma ties. Along with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, they wrote letters to Stitt pleading for commutation. Other celebrities such as reality star and legal-system reform advocate Kim Kardashian used their platforms to bring attention to Jones’s plight.

So did five Republicans in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Those lawmakers — Kevin McDugle, Garry Mize, Logan Phillips, Preston Stinson, and John Talley — released a joint statement last week asking Stitt to accept the parole board’s recommendation.

The Black Wall Street Times reported that former Trump White House communications official Mercedes Schlapp, along with her husband Matt, had been advocating for the same. “We are pleading, praying for the governor of Oklahoma to make the right decision,” Schlapp said last week.

Julius Jones in a photo provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections in February 2018.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP

There are many reasons Jones should be spared, his advocates have argued. Jones and his family have said that Jones was home that night, playing Monopoly with them and eating “spaghetti and cornbread.” That alibi wasn’t presented in court by his defense, which the family claims was incompetent. Prosecutors have said this is a “blatant falsehood,” and that Jones’s trial attorney never called the family to the witness stand because Jones repeatedly told his attorneys that he was not at home on the night of the murder.

The Innocence Project has called for Jones to be completely exonerated, arguing that there is “little doubt that racism was at play in Mr. Jones’s case.” Represent Justice, the nonprofit organization operating the site Justice For Julius, says the Jones family has claimed there was racial bias within the courtroom and racist intimidation from law enforcement — including an arresting officer and a juror who both allegedly directed the n-word at Jones.

The most significant allegation from the Jones camp is that they believe someone else committed the murder — someone who may have already admitted to it.

Trial transcripts show that witnesses identified Jones as the shooter and placed him within Howell’s stolen SUV. Howell’s daughter, Rachel — a young child sitting in the car when her father was shot — has also continued to insist that Jones was the killer. Jones, however, has said that Christopher Jordan, his former associate and co-defendant, committed the killing and later set him up by planting the murder weapon and a red bandana seen at the crime scene in the attic space above Jones’s bedroom. That’s where investigators found them both, and the bandana had Jones’s DNA on it.

It may also be incumbent upon the state to reexamine the evidence in Jones’s case solely because of the record of “Cowboy” Bob Macy, who first charged Jones with the crime in 1999. He secured at least 54 death sentences — more than any other individual prosecutor in the United States. However, courts have reversed nearly half of those sentences, and at least three of the people Macy sent to death row were later exonerated.

Macy claimed he was protecting the innocent. In 2001, he told the New York Times of the death penalty, “I feel like it makes my city, county and state a safer place for innocent people to live. And that’s why I embrace it, not because I get any enjoyment out of it.” According to a 2016 study by Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project, Macy once told a jury that sentencing a defendant to death was a “patriotic duty.”

Rachel Howell, daughter of Paul Howell, sits next to a photo of her father during a commutation hearing for Julius Jones, who was convicted of Howell’s murder, on September 13. Jones was sentenced to the death penalty; the board voted that the sentence be commuted to life in prison.
Sue Ogrocki/AP

That same Harvard study concluded that Macy engaged in “extreme prosecutorial misconduct,” including findings of inappropriate behavior in 18 of his cases. At least three of his capital convictions have been overturned. Many of his convictions relied on the testimony of police forensic scientist Joyce Gilchrist, who the FBI and Oklahoma Attorney General’s office later discovered had falsified evidence.

Even with the governor’s granting of clemency to Jones on Thursday, an urgent question remaining concerns the exceptional brutality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocols.

Oklahoma’s history of horrific executions

Before Clayton Lockett was executed by the state in 2014 for a murder conviction, his stepmother, LaDonna Hollins, wanted to know how it was going to happen. She said to reporters at the time, “I want to know, what mixture of drugs are you going to use now? Is this instant? Is this going to cause horrible pain?”

The sedative midazolam was administered to Lockett first, followed by a paralytic called vecuronium bromide. Then came potassium chloride, which was supposed to stop Lockett’s heart. His death, however, was not instantaneous. It took 40 agonizing minutes for Lockett to die.

Lockett woke up and tried to rise from his chair, even after he was declared unconscious with all three drugs in his system. Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton said at the time that Lockett’s vein failed, allowing the drugs to leak out into his system. The lethal injections hadn’t brought about the relatively silent death expected from such procedures. Lockett’s botched execution resulted in him dying of a heart attack.

Charles Warner, sentenced to death after he was convicted of killing an infant, stayed still in his seat after he received his injections in 2015, but his last words were “My body is on fire.” That same year, the state came within moments of killing Richard Glossip before prison officials discovered they had received the wrong injections from their supplier. The state knew this before the execution, yet the governor’s general counsel still said that stopping Glossip’s execution “would look bad for the state of Oklahoma.”

Then all executions halted in the state for six years, until John Marion Grant was put to death in October. The 60-year-old, sentenced in 1999 for the murder of prison cafeteria worker Gay Carter, began convulsing and vomiting following the midazolam injection, per the Associated Press, something observers said was unusual. One doctor characterized the dose Grant was given as “insane.” The state insisted that it carried out the execution “in accordance with Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ protocols and without complication.”

Madeline Davis-Jones, the mother of Julius Jones, speaks to supporters outside the offices of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on February 25.
Sue Ogrocki/AP
Julius Jones’s supporters rally for the commutation of his death sentence in Oklahoma City on February 25.
Sue Ogrocki/AP

The latter part of that sentence — “without complication” — is surely in doubt. Oklahoma’s track record is giving authorities in the state, including some on the state parole board, pause as they consider the state’s unchanged drug protocol. Its constitutionality is still in question.

In a statement, Gov. Stitt’s office said that a 2016 election referendum had the effect of “constitutionalizing” the state’s death penalty. The governor’s office, citing the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center, argued that the referendum prevents state courts from declaring the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment or a violation of any provision of the state constitution.

Oklahoma moved forward last month with executing Grant, the first to die by lethal injection in the state since 2015, after the US Supreme Court voted 5-3 to lift temporary stays on his execution and that of another man: Julius Jones.

What comes next?

Even with Stitt’s announcement Thursday that he had granted Jones clemency, there is another thing to reevaluate: Oklahoma’s methods for killing its incarcerated defendants on death row. Including Thursday’s proclamation, Stitt has not given any recent public statements indicating he’ll do so.

The sparing of Jones’s life brings relief to his supporters, but not satisfaction. For every other person who remains on Oklahoma’s death row, the same specter still looms: the violent, potentially unconstitutional manner in which the state intends to bring about their deaths.

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