OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board on Monday recommended the governor commute the death sentence of Julius Jones, who has maintained his innocence in a 1999 killing that has garnered national attention.
The five-member board voted 3-1 to recommend Jones’ sentence be commuted to life in prison after board member Scott Williams recused himself because of a professional relationship he had with one of the attorneys who spoke on Jones' behalf. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt ultimately will decide the fate of Jones, who claims he was framed for the 1999 shooting death of Edmond businessman Paul Howell.
“Personally, I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubts. And put simply, I have doubts about this case," said Chairman Adam Luck, one of Stitt's appointees on the board who voted to commute Jones' sentence.
Monday's vote came after several hours of testimony from members of Howell's family, prosecutors who tried the case, and attorneys and supporters of Jones.
Kelly Doyle, another Stitt appointee who voted in favor of commuting Jones' sentence, said she agreed with Luck and noted there were mitigating factors she considered, including the fact that Jones, now 41, was 19 when Howell was killed during a carjacking.
Former District Attorney Richard Smothermon, who was appointed to the board by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, cast the lone no vote.
Stitt spokeswoman Carly Atchison said the governor plans to review the board's recommendation carefully.
“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," Atchison said in a statement. “We will not have any further comment until the governor has made a decision.”
The board's vote does not ensure Jones' sentence will be commuted. Stitt's predecessor, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, rejected three separate recommendations for clemency for death row inmates from the board. The last time a governor granted clemency to a death row inmate was Democrat Brad Henry in 2010.
Jones’ case drew widespread attention after it was profiled in “The Last Defense,” a three-episode documentary produced by actress Viola Davis that aired on ABC in 2018. Since then, reality television star Kim Kardashian West and athletes with Oklahoma ties, including NBA stars Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Trae Young, have urged Stitt to commute Jones’ death sentence and spare his life.
Jones alleges he was framed by the actual killer, a high school friend and former co-defendant who was a key witness against him. But Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and the state’s former attorney general, Mike Hunter, have said the evidence against Jones is overwhelming.
Information from trial transcripts shows that witnesses identified Jones as the shooter and placed him with Howell’s stolen vehicle. Investigators also found the murder weapon and a bandana with Jones’ DNA in an attic space above his bedroom. Jones claimed in his commutation filing that the gun and bandana were planted there by the actual killer.
Howell's sister and two young daughters — one of whom testified Monday — were in Howell's SUV when the carjacking happened in his parents' driveway in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond.
“I was there when my brother Paul Howell was murdered," Howell's sister, Megan Tobey, told the board. “I know beyond a doubt that Julius Jones murdered my brother."
Tobey said the killer also ran over Howell, crushing his legs, as he sped away.
“My parents never got over the death of their youngest son," Tobey said. “They never got closure and they were never truly happy again."
This story has been updated to correct that the board recommended Jones' sentence be commuted to life in prison, not life without parole, and that Richard Smothermon was appointed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court, not the governor.