December 1, 2021

Tensions ease after Stitt commutes his death sentence

Julius Jones’ mother Madeline Davis-Jones addresses supporters at a rally at the Oklahoma Capitol. Governor Kevin Stitt on Thursday commuted Jones’ death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Photo by Janice Francis-Smith)

A sort of silence had descended on Oklahoma City hours before Governor Kevin Stitt broke his long silence on the question of Julius Jones’ life, as the community braced for the governor’s decision.

Stitt’s last-minute announcement to spare Jones’ life – but to ensure the rest of his life is spent behind bars – was announced by news outlets nationwide and greeted by advocates of Jones with a mixture of joy and disappointment.

The white marble halls and high dome of the State Capitol echoed with a chorus of voices in harmony, emotionally singing hymns on Wednesday afternoon. Many in the crowd bowed their heads and raised their hands towards the closed door of the governor’s office, some whispering individual prayers for mercy. The crowd peaked as they listened to Madeline Davis-Jones, Julius Jones’ mother, who thanked them for giving her strength.

The group gathered at the Capitol was ethnically diverse but rather young. Efforts to prevent Jones’ execution have energized young adults, some of whom may be in contact with their state’s government for the first time, said Parliamentary Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, the one of the many lawmakers who stood in the halls of the Capitol and watched the vigil unfold.

“People talk a lot about how this state is viewed nationally, what it says about us to the rest of the country, but I’m concerned about what it says to our young people,” Virgin said. “They came here (to the Capitol), they left schools, they defended this cause. I hope they won’t take it off for nothing.

Oklahoma City Police have erected barricades blocking sidewalks around the governor’s residence, preventing crowds from gathering there.

The compulsion to wait for a response from Stitt began to manifest itself in the cancellation or modification of certain events. Red Dirt Poetry had planned a poetry slam – a generally noisy spoken word contest with a cash prize – on Wednesday night, to be held at Ponyboy, 423 NW 23rd St. – just about a mile down the street from the Capitol. On Wednesday morning, however, administrator Yoko Hill posted a social media post amending the plans.

“Given the intense anxiety and frustration that I and others in our community feel, if Stitt has not granted clemency by tonight, we will put the slam on hold in favor of ‘an intimate night of reading our poetry and focusing on healing. ” wrote. Still wordless Thursday morning, popular local musician Beau Jennings took to social media to reschedule his scheduled Thursday night show at Ponyboy, following the post with the hashtag “Justice for Julius.”

Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt encountered a bit of a backlash on social media Wednesday when he said on a morning show that he had not considered rescheduling the event. city ​​Christmas tree lighting.

“Wow, just wow,” Kim Schlittler tweeted. “I felt our city was sitting on a powder keg. Pay attention and read the play.

Nationwide network news organizations followed the story hour by hour. The story caught the nation’s attention when it was highlighted in the 2018 documentary The last defense. Jones spent nearly 20 years on death row after being convicted of the 1999 murder of Edmond resident Paul Howell, who was killed in front of his sister and daughters in the driveway of his parents’ house during a car theft.

Jones has always maintained his innocence from the crime. The documentary raised questions about the adequacy of Jones’ defense and cast doubt on the witnesses and evidence used to convict Jones. Several inmates who served jail time with Jones’ co-accused in the case, Christopher Jordan, have claimed Jordan confessed to committing the crime and charged Jones. Jordan testified against Jones and was released from prison after 15 years.

Jones’ case was prosecuted by former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy, who for a time had the distinction of putting the most people on death row – 54 – and who has been reprimanded for several cases of prosecutorial misconduct.

State and county prosecutors said the evidence against Jones was overwhelming. Trial transcripts show witnesses identified Jones as the gunman and placed him with Howell’s stolen vehicle. Investigators also found the murder weapon wrapped in a bandana with Jones’ DNA in an attic above his bedroom. Jones claims the murder weapon was placed there by the actual killer, who visited Jones’ house after Howell was shot.

The state Pardons and Parole Board twice voted 3-1 to recommend that Stitt grant Jones clemency and commute his sentence to life in prison. Stitt named two of the three members who voted to recommend leniency: Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle. The third member, Larry Morris, was appointed by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

“Personally, I believe there should be no doubt in death penalty cases. And put it simply, I have my doubts about this matter, ”Luck said on the day of Jones’ pardon hearing.

The manner in which the latest executions in Oklahoma were administered adds to concerns about the ongoing execution.

Oklahoma ended a six-year moratorium on executions – sparked by concerns over its lethal injection methods – last month. John Marion Grant, 60, had seizures and vomited while being put to death on October 28. Grant was the first person in Oklahoma to be executed since a series of deadly flawed injections in 2014 and 2015 led to a de facto moratorium. Richard Glossip was only hours away from being executed in September 2015 when prison officials realized they had been given the deadly wrong drug. It was later learned that the same wrong drug was used to execute an inmate in January 2015. The drug mixes followed a botched execution in April 2014 in which inmate Clayton Lockett struggled on a stretcher before die 43 minutes after his lethal injection – and after the head of state prisons ordered the executioners to stop.

“Thousands of people across Oklahoma, the country and the world have called on the governor to stop Oklahoma from executing an innocent man,” Jones’ lawyer Amanda Bass said Thursday morning, noting the continued silence. of Stitt on the matter. “Those who support clemency for Mr. Jones span the political and religious spectrum and include dozens of prominent conservatives and evangelical religious leaders. “

Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West and several athletes and musicians have spent several months defending Jones. NFL Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and NBA stars Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Trae Young have urged Stitt to commute Jones’ death sentence.

In recent weeks, some Republican members of the Oklahoma legislature have also urged the governor to follow the recommendation of the Pardons and Parole Board.

“There is too much doubt here, especially since Julius Jones’ co-accused confessed to being the real murderer,” said Rep. Garry Mize, R-Guthrie. “We cannot carry out an execution in these circumstances in good conscience. I hope and urge Governor Stitt to accept the recommendation of his parole board.

Stitt’s announcement, which came about four hours before the scheduled execution date, was quickly praised by celebrities, news organizations and advocates nationwide, with “Stitt” quickly becoming a trending topic on social media.

The announcement was greeted with a wave of gratitude, with some dismay at the conditions Stitt imposed and the fact that he had waited so long to announce his decision.

“After prayerfully considering and reviewing documents presented by all parties to this case, I have decided to commute Julius Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” Stitt said in his statement.

In his executive order, Stitt stipulated that Jones “will never again be eligible to apply for, be considered for, or receive a commutation, pardon or further parole.”

Stitt asserted that the Pardons and Parole Board did not have the constitutional authority to recommend that the death penalty be commuted to the death penalty with the possibility of parole, but the governor has the power to grant commutations with “such conditions and with such restrictions and limitations as the Governor may deem appropriate.” Stitt ordered that Jones should never be allowed to seek commutation, pardon or parole “for the rest of his life.”

“I thank Governor Stitt for issuing an executive order to commute Julius Jones’ sentence,” said Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City. “It was a very difficult process. I am grateful to the Governor for considering the facts of the case and for making this decision. “

“The death penalty is an intolerable denial of civil liberties and is incompatible with the core values ​​of our democratic system,” said Tamya Cox-Touré, executive director of the ACLU of Oklahoma. “We join our partners, local organizers and especially the Jones family in a collective sigh of relief that Julius will have the opportunity to live through, after decades of waiting to die.

“We also recognize that Oklahoma is set to kill five more people over the next four months and call on Governor Sitt to reimpose a moratorium on executions immediately and indefinitely,” Cox-Toure said. “Oklahoma must end the death penalty now.”

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