On Monday, Sept. 14, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 for a recommendation on Julius Jones’ death sentence to be commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Jones was convicted in the murder of Paul Howell and was on death row while maintaining his innocence.
The only “no” vote came from board member Richard Smothermon. The recommendation was sent to Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has the final decision. Carly Atchison, a spokeswoman for Stitt, said the governor “takes his role in this process seriously and will carefully consider the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation as he does in all cases.”
The case sparked a campaign across the country called “Justice for Julius.” Before the hearing, over a hundred people marched outside the Pardon and Parole Board meeting to support Jones and his family.
The Instagram page created for the campaign already has more than 40,000 followers. The bio reads: “Julius Jones is on death row in Oklahoma, despite maintaining his innocence and compelling evidence that he was wrongfully convicted.”
Jones was convicted in 1999 for the murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell, who was shot and killed outside his parents’ home. Howell’s sister and his young daughters witnessed the occurrence.
The Instagram page also explains how Jones was convicted while he was a freshman at the University of Oklahoma. The post says that the attorneys assigned to represent Jones were not prepared for the task and never presented Jones’s alibi to the court. On the night of the crime, Jones and his family say he was home.
Megan Howell Tobey, Paul Howell’s sister, said during Monday’s commutation hearing she was convinced Jones is guilty of her brother’s death.
“I was there when my brother was murdered,” Megan Howell Tobey said. “I’ve read the transcripts and read the evidence. I know beyond a doubt that Julius Jones murdered my brother. If Jones is let out, I fear what he will do to me. He is still a threat to society.”
Bill Howell Jr., Paul Howell’s brother, said Jones does not deserve to have his sentence commuted.
“Do not give him any opportunity to get back on the streets,” Bill Howell said.
The Howell family hopes to meet with Stitt before he makes his decision.
“We sincerely hope that Gov. Stitt will review this case and treat us more fairly than the criminal justice reformers on this board,” Brian Howell said.
The Instagram page says there is no evidence Jones was guilty of the crime.
“The only eyewitness to the shooting described the perpetrator as having a half-inch of hair sticking out from underneath a stocking cap” the post said. “At the time, Julius’s hair was closely cropped.”
The page appoints racial bias as the reason permeating Jones’s arrest, prosecution and trial.
“During jury selection, all prospective black jurors – except one – were eliminated from the jury,” the post said. “Eleven members of the jury that voted to convict and sentence Julius to death were white. Julius was not tried by a jury of his peers.”
District Attorney David Prater and the Howell family said Jones’s campaign is based on misinformation, and the Howells have started their own movement. In documents shared with KOCO 5, the Howell family takes 15 of the more controversial and debated points in the case, such as claims of racism within the jury.
Board Chairman Adam Luck said he believes in death penalty cases where there are no doubts. Luck said Jones’ case is not free of questioning.
“I have doubts in this case,” Luck said. “I cannot ignore those doubts, especially when the stakes are life and death.”
Antoinette Jones, Julius Jones’s younger sister, said she is grateful after the board’s decision in commuting the death sentence of her brother.
“I don’t have a lot of words,” Antoinette Jones said. “I’m just thanking God.”
After the hearing, the official Instagram page for the “Justice for Julius” movement posted about the commutation decision.
“We are thankful that the Pardon and Parole Board recommended Julius’s sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole,” the post said. “Although that recommendation means he will not be walking out a free man as soon as we hoped, Julius would be able to spend his days inside prison no longer on death row and, in the future, be eligible for parole.”
There is no official date when the governor will make his final decision. Jones is among six other men on Oklahoma’s death row who state Attorney General John O’Connor is seeking to execute after a more than a five-year moratorium on executions.