Oklahoma parole board recommends clemency for Julius Jones, who is scheduled to be executed for murder he says he didn't commit
By Dakin Andone, Amir Vera, Amy Simonson and Claudia Dominguez, CNN
(CNN) -- The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended granting clemency to Julius Jones, a man sentenced to death for a murder he says he did not commit.
Jones pleaded his case to the board less than three weeks before he's set to be executed. The board voted 3-1 on Monday to recommend commuting Jones' sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole, according to the release from the inmate's attorneys.
"My son Julius has been on death row for over twenty years for a murder he did not commit, and every day of that has been a waking nightmare for my family," said Madeline Davis-Jones, in a statement through their attorney.
"I am grateful to the Pardon and Parole Board for again showing they are willing to listen to facts and reason, show compassion, and do what is in their power to right this terrible wrong. Now, I am asking Gov. Stitt to do the same by accepting their recommendation."
Gov. Kevin Stitt gets the final say on Jones' fate. His office said he is aware of the board's action and there will be no further comment until his decision.
Jones, who is Black, is scheduled to be executed November 18 for the 1999 murder of Paul Howell, whose sister and two young daughters were present when he was shot in the driveway of his parents' home. But Jones, his attorneys and advocates -- among them high-profile celebrities like Kim Kardashian West -- insist he is innocent.
For nearly two decades, Jones has been on death row for a crime he did not commit, his clemency petition says, because of "fundamental breakdowns in the system tasked with deciding" his guilt, including ineffective and inexperienced defense attorneys, racial bias among his jury and alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
The same parole board recommended commuting Jones' sentence in September.
"The Pardon and Parole Board has now twice voted in favor of commuting Julius Jones's death sentence, acknowledging the grievous errors that led to his conviction and death sentence. We hope that Governor Stitt will exercise his authority to accept the Board's recommendation and ensure that Oklahoma does not execute an innocent man," said Amanda Bass, lead counsel for Jones.
But Howell's family and the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office have rejected Jones' innocence claims and believe he's guilty. In a previous statement to CNN, daughter Rachel Howell called the narrative about Jones' case "completely false" and evidence shows he is guilty.
CNN has reached out to Howell for reaction to the board's recommendation.
Millions have voiced support for Jones
Jones' case has attracted widespread attention in recent years, in part due to the ABC documentary series "The Last Defense," which spotlighted his case in 2018. The support goes beyond his family and celebrities: More than 6.4 million people have signed a Change.org petition asking Stitt, a Republican, to prevent his execution.
"It means the world to me," Jones' younger sister, Antoinette Jones, told CNN in an interview. "It means that we're not alone anymore. It means that we can kind of breathe a little bit easier, knowing that other people are willing to fight alongside us.
"I appreciate that we have the help now," she said, "because we didn't have that 22 years ago."
That was echoed by Cece Jones-Davis, the director of the Justice for Julius campaign, which aims to raise awareness of Jones' case and lobby for clemency. Before "The Last Defense," she said there weren't many people aware of Jones' case. But she believes the broad support today has made a difference.
"I don't know where we would be," she said. "I think it has meant the absolute world, that people have come together and that that numbers of supporters are fighting for Julius."
Jones' supporters are hopeful. Monday's hearing took place before the same parole board that recommended in September Jones' sentence be commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole. But a week later, an execution date was set by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, prompting the clemency hearing.
Ultimately, the decision for clemency lies with the governor, who said in a letter to the parole board last month he would not make a decision based on their recommendation Jones' sentence be commuted, saying instead a clemency hearing would be the "appropriate venue" for his case to be considered.
"I am not accepting the Pardon and Parole Board's recommendation to commute the sentence of Julius Jones," Stitt wrote, "because a clemency hearing, not a commutation hearing, is the appropriate venue for our state to consider death row cases."
Support for Jones is 'extremely tough' on victim's family, daughter says
The groundswell of sympathy for Jones, however, has been painful for Howell's family, which -- along with the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office -- have pointed out Jones' sentence has been repeatedly upheld on appeal. Both have rejected the evidence put forth by Jones and his attorneys, with the previous attorney general referring to it as "misinformation."
In a statement to CNN, Rachel Howell said Jones, his family and defense team "want people to believe that Julius Jones is completely innocent, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence against him."
"Overall, this has been extremely tough on our family," she said, "as we have continued to be re-victimized by Julius Jones when we have done absolutely nothing wrong."
Davis-Jones said Monday she will keep the Howell family in her prayers.
"I know what it is like to have a loved one ripped away from you and to constantly relive that loss. I hope and pray they find healing and peace," Davis-Jones said.
Jones was arrested at the age of 19
Howell was killed in a carjacking the night of July 28, 1999. Around 9:30 p.m., Howell, his adult sister and his daughters pulled into his parents' driveway in his 1997 Suburban, according to court documents. Howell's sister told his daughters to gather their belongings and was exiting the vehicle when she heard a gunshot, court documents say.
Howell's sister glanced back, court documents say, and saw a Black man she said was wearing jeans, a white T-shirt, a black cap and a red bandana over his face. The shooter fired again as Howell's sister and his daughters ran to the house, documents say. Howell died about 1:45 the next morning.
Jones, 19 at the time, was arrested three days later on July 31, the day after authorities found the murder weapon wrapped in a red bandana inside his family's home.
He was tried alongside a co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit a robbery, per online court records. Jordan testified against Jones, who was convicted and sentenced to death.
In his clemency petition, Jones' attorneys contend his conviction was the result of numerous failures, such as his "inexperienced, overworked, and under-resourced public defenders."
None had handled a death penalty case before Jones, and at trial, the attorneys did not present any evidence or call a single witness in Jones' defense during the stage of his trial where his guilt was determined, the petition says.
As a result, evidence his team says would have exonerated Jones was never presented to the jury. For example, Jones' family says, he was home with them the night of the murder, the petition says. The jury was also not shown a photo of Jones, taken days before Howell's killing, that the petition says would have shown he did not match the shooter's description. Several jurors have come forward and indicated this evidence might have changed the outcome of the case.
There's also the issue of alleged racial bias. According to the petition, one juror later said they heard another juror refer to Jones as the n-word. Additionally, when Jones was arrested, a police officer also called him the n-word, the petition alleges.
Jones' attorneys instead point to his co-defendant, Jordan. The petition cites several individuals who say Jordan has admitted he was the one who actually killed Howell. One of those individuals says Jordan told him he'd hidden the weapon and the bandana inside Jones' house. The petition says Jordan spent the night at the home the day after the murder.
Jordan was released from prison in 2014, according to Jones' clemency petition.
CNN was unable to reach Jordan for comment, and an attorney who has reportedly represented him did not respond to requests for comment over the weekend.
In a statement to ABC News in September, an attorney for Jordan, Billy Bock, said, "Chris Jordan maintains his position that his role in the death of Paul Howell was as an accomplice to Julius Jones. Mr. Jordan testified truthfully in the jury trial of Mr. Jones and denies 'confessing' to anyone."
Jones' clemency petition also takes issue with prosecutors' use of confidential informants in his case and alleges prosecutors misled the jury by not revealing the deals they'd offered to the prosecution's witnesses, including Jordan. The attorney general's office disputes this, saying the jury was aware of those benefits and they did not impact his trial.
'Jones had his day in court'
Rachel Howell and her family, however, fully believe Jones is guilty of Paul Howell's murder.
The family decided to begin speaking up this year because the truth was "being buried and we needed to have a voice for our loved one," she said, and so the family set up its own website, Justice for Paul Howell.
"The fact is Julius Jones murdered Paul Howell in cold blood in front of his sister and daughters," then-Attorney General Mike Hunter said last year as he released information in an effort to refute what his office characterized as "mistruths" about the case.
For example, regarding Jones' claim of an alibi, the AG's office said the alibi was thoroughly investigated and not found to be credible, adding the claim was explored in an evidentiary hearing ordered by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
Jones himself was inconsistent on where he was the night of the murder, the AG's office said, adding two of Jones' trial attorneys testified he told them his family was mistaken and he was not home when Howell was killed.
The office also pointed to DNA testing done at the defense's request on the red bandana. The results, the office said in a document released in July 2020, indicated the major component of the DNA profile matched Jones and excluded Jordan. (Jones' team has said in response the DNA tests results were limited, and Jordan's DNA could not be excluded.)
The office similarly contests claims of racial bias, noting the juror who claimed to have heard another use the n-word did not specifically raise the issue during Jones' trial. She had brought to the court's attention another comment made by a juror, but per the AG's office, an appellate found it unlikely the juror would fail to mention the racial epithet when she'd reported the other comment.
Jones and his supporters, however, have similarly repudiated these arguments.
"Jones had his day in court," Hunter said. "We've heard a lot recently from those advocating for his release. I'm here today to support the Howell's family's plea for justice. They are the victims in this case, and the pain of their loss is reawakened with each misguided public appeal on Jones' behalf."
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