The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 Monday to advance death row inmate Julius Jones’ commutation request to a Stage Two Review, a more comprehensive hearing where new testimony and evidence may be introduced. 

Board members Kelly Doyle, Larry Morris and Adam Luck voted to move the application forward, while Charles McCall cast the only no vote. The board’s fifth member, Robert Gilliland, resigned in January due to health issues and his vacancy has not yet been filled. 

A three-vote majority is required to move a case from Stage 1 review, a very brief hearing where board members decide if the case merits further consideration, to Stage 2. During the second hearing, Jones and his legal counsel will be granted time to speak directly with board members. Law enforcement and court representatives will also be allowed to comment. 

Julius Jones at his 2002 sentencing hearing. (Photo by Paul Hellstern/The Oklahoman)

Jones, 40, was convicted in 2001 of murdering businessman Paul Howell outside his Edmond home. His co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, testified against him at trial and received a reduced sentence, while an Oklahoma County jury sentenced Jones to death. 

Advocates for Jones say new evidence points to his innocence and will lead to his exoneration. Last Friday, his attorneys sent the Pardon and Parole Board a sworn statement from an Arkansas inmate who says Jordan confessed to the murder and admitted to framing Jones. 

Jones has maintained his innocence for the past two decades. A July 2018 ABC documentary, Julius Jones: The Crime, brought national attention to the case. Numerous public figures, including social media personality Kim Kardashian and NBA star Russell Westbrook, have advocated for Jones’ early release.  

Claiming there is sufficient evidence to support his first-degree murder conviction, Attorney General Mike Hunter and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater have urged the Pardon and Parole Board to reject Jones’ commutation request. 

Commutations in Oklahoma are intended to correct an unjust or excessive sentence. An inmate may be considered for commutation if their sentence is considered excessive under current state law, or if they are able to present new evidence or facts that were not available at the time of trial. 

As state and national media attentions turns to the upcoming Stage 2 Review, here’s what to expect over the next several months: 

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When Will The Stage 2 Review Rake Place? 

Sometime later this year. The COVID-19 pandemic and last month’s winter weather have caused some commutation hearings to be pushed back and could delay Jones’ placement on a Stage 2 Review Docket. Pardon and Parole Board dockets and results can be viewed here

What Happens if Jones’ Case Advances Past Stage 2? 

The state Pardon and Parole Board will forward its commutation recommendation to the governor’s office. The governor has 90 days to grant or deny the application. If no action is taken, the application is considered denied. 

If Granted Commutation, Will Jones be Released From Prison?

It’s possible but not guaranteed. The board makes a recommendation on how the sentence should be modified, which the governor can accept, deny or modify. For example, the board could recommend that Jones’ sentence be commuted and he be released from prison, but Gov. Kevin Stitt could overrule that decision and rule that Jones’ sentence be commuted to life in prison. 

Are There Any Indications Whether Stitt Would Grant It? 

During his time as governor, Stitt has supported expanding the power of the Pardon and Parole board and has approved thousands of commutations, mostly for drug and property offenders. However, Stitt has not commented publicly on the Jones case. 

What’s the status of the death penalty in Oklahoma?

If Jones’ commutation application is rejected, a big question will be whether an execution date will be set? Due to concerns over the state’s lethal injection protocol, Oklahoma has not carried out an execution since 2015. However, Attorney General Mike Hunter said during an interim study last October that the state is prepared to resume executions as soon as “early-to-mid 2021”

The state is fighting a lawsuit in federal court, brought on by attorneys of death row inmates, that alleges the state’s death penalty protocol is unconstitutional. During the ongoing litigation, the state has promised not to schedule or carry out any executions. A decision is expected later this year. 

Jones has exhausted all of his appeals, meaning an execution date will likely be set if his commutation application is unsuccessful and the federal court sides with the state. 

Is There Precedent For The Jones Case?

Oklahoma death row inmates have historically sought relief through clemency hearings, which are scheduled after an execution date has been set. For example, former Gov. Brad Henry granted clemency to death row inmate Kevin Young four weeks before his August 2008 execution date. 

Last June, the Pardon and Parole Board asked the state Attorney General’s office for a formal opinion on if death row inmates are eligible for commutation. Citing a previous opinion, Attorney General Hunter said inmates facing the death penalty may seek commutation in addition to a clemency hearing. 

Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss

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