A week before death row inmate Julius Jones’ Stage 1 commutation hearing, media personality Kim Kardashian challenged her 69 million Twitter followers to phone the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board and advocate for his release.
“Tell them to send Julius Jones home to his family,” a narrator reads near the end of a video that Kardashian tweeted on March 1. “They’ve waited over two decades for justice.”
Former Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook and Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield have also called on the Board to issue a favorable commutation recommendation to Jones, a 40-year-old convicted of murdering Edmond businessman Paul Howell outside of his home in 1999. Advocates say Jones’ co-defendant, Christopher Jordan, framed him for the murder in an attempt to receive a reduced sentence.
By a 3-1 vote last week, the Board advanced Jones’ application to a Stage 2 hearing, a more comprehensive review where new evidence and testimony may be presented. A three-vote majority is required to advance the application to Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office for final consideration.
Ahead of this hearing, likely to happen sometime in June, questions linger about the scope of the Board’s power and how the commutation process plays out. This Q&A addresses common questions about the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board:
What does the Pardon and Parole Board do?
The Pardon and Parole Board is tasked with impartially reviewing pardon, parole, commutation and clemency applications submitted by state prisoners. The agency has about two dozen employees, including an executive director, assistant executive director, general counsel and several case investigators.
The Board may grant parole to nonviolent offenders, whose crimes are not listed in section 57, Title 571 of the Oklahoma State Statutes, without the governor’s approval. In clemency, commutation and violent parole cases, the Board forwards its favorable recommendations to the governor for a final decision.
The governor appoints three out of five members and may set directives and recommendations. In February 2019, Gov. Kevin Stitt asked the board to assist in reducing the state’s prison population by releasing more nonviolent offenders.
What are the qualifications to be a board member?
They must hold a bachelor’s degree and have at least five years of experience in law enforcement, corrections, mental health, social work or a related field. Two of the five members are required to have training in social work, mental health or substance abuse services.
Three are appointed by the Governor, one by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and one by the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals. They serve four-year terms concurrent with the governor.
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Who are the current board members?
Allen McCall, appointed by Noma Gurich, Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. McCall is a retired judge who served in Comanche and Cotton counties from 1982 through 2013. His term expires in January 2023.
Larry Morris, appointed by Dana Keuhn, presiding judge of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. Morris has more than 20 years of experience working as a juvenile counselor, social worker and probation officer. His term expires in January 2023.
Kelly Doyle, appointed by Stitt, is deputy executive director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated people find work. Her term expires in January 2023.
Adam Luck, appointed by Stitt, is Chief Executive Officer of City Care, a nonprofit organization that provides housing assistance to low-income families in Oklahoma City. He previously served as a board member with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. His term expires in January 2023.
Scott Williams, appointed by Stitt, is a former Office of Juvenile Affairs board member and Life.Church campus minister. On Monday, Stitt announced that he had appointed Williams to replace Robert Gilliland, a trial lawyer who resigned from the board in January due to health concerns. Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in criminal justice management and administration.
Jones will be granted time to speak directly with Pardon and Parole Board members at a hearing later this year.
What is commutation?
Commutation is a tool meant to correct an excessive or unjust sentence, not release an inmate from prison early or wipe their criminal record clean. In Oklahoma, a sentence may be eligible for commutation if:
- The statutory range of punishment for the crime has changed. For example, State Question 780 significantly reduced sentencing ranges for certain drug and property offenses. Following the enactment of House Bill 1269, a bill that made State Question 780 retroactive, the board recommended commutation to 527 inmates in an accelerated hearing.
- New evidence that wasn’t available at the time of trial has arisen. In the Julius Jones case, advocates say testimony from an Arkansas inmate that Christopher Jordan murdered Paul Howell casts serious doubt on Jones’ conviction.
- The Board, using its own discernment, finds the original sentence was unjust or excessive.
Can any inmate apply for commutation?
Yes. Prisoners can request an application from their facility’s law library or ask someone on the outside to mail them the form.
The form asks for an account of the offense, any involved victims and the basis for seeking commutation. Letters of support must be submitted alongside the application. An attorney is not required to complete the form, though some law firms offer to streamline the process.
Inmates who receive a misconduct violation while their commutation application is pending are automatically removed from consideration and must wait three years before applying again.
How long does the commutation process take?
About six months. Each commutation application is assigned to a Stage 1 review, a very brief hearing where Board members determine if the case is worthy of further consideration. The Board will typically move through hundreds of commutation applications in a single Stage 1 hearing. A three-vote majority is required to advance the application to Stage 2 review, a more comprehensive hearing where inmates, their legal counsel, victims and law enforcement representatives may address the Board.
The Stage 2 review is usually scheduled a few months after the Stage 1 hearing. Again, a three-vote majority is required to advance the application, this time to the governor’s office. When making a favorable commutation recommendation, the board also issues guidance on how the sentence should be modified. Board members are not required to provide their reasoning for rejecting or recommending commutation.
The governor has 90 days to grant or deny the application. If they fail to act, the request is considered denied.
With a few rare exceptions, an inmate whose commutation application is rejected must wait at least three years before they’re eligible to apply again.
What rights do victims, law enforcement and prosecutors have during the commutation process?
State law mandates that the following parties be given at least 20 business days notice to submit a written recommendation or protest of the commutation application:
- Current elected judge of the court where the applicant was convicted
- Current district attorney of the court where the applicant was convicted
- Head administrative officer of the arresting law enforcement agency
- The victim or representative of the victim
During the Stage 2 hearing, the victim or their representative is alloted five minutes to address the board, if requested. Law enforcement and court representatives are also given time to speak.
How does the state legislature influence the pardon and parole board?
While the board maintains some autonomy, including the ability to appoint its own executive director and modify procedural rules, the state legislature largely decides how cases are reviewed and the criteria for certain kinds of early release. For example, a bill moving through the legislature could change how the Pardon and Parole Board reviews medical parole cases.
Senate Bill 320, sponsored by Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan, passed 39-6 in the Senate on Wednesday. If enacted by the House and signed by the governor, the bill would expand medical parole to a greater number of inmates.
Under current state law, the Pardon and Parole Board may only recommend medical parole if an inmate is “dying or near death,” or declared no longer a threat to society due to their health condition. Senate Bill 320 would expand eligibility to “medically frail” inmates who have trouble caring for themselves. If the governor has declared a medical emergency, the bill would expand and allow any inmate who suffers from one or more chronic health conditions to request medical parole.
Another proposed bill would modify how the Board reviews death row cases.
House Bill 1551, sponsored by Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, would authorize the Pardon and Parole Board to create a Conviction Integrity Unit to review death row cases. The bill would allow death row inmates to petition an independent attorney and investigator on the unit to review their case. If there’s a plausible claim of innocence, the unit would investigate the case and submit a report to the Pardon and Parole Board, attorney general and district attorney who prosecuted the case. While the bill has not yet received a House or Senate vote, it has gained bipartisan support.
What open government laws are the Pardon and Parole Board subject to?
The Oklahoma Open Records Act ensures the public’s right to information from state agencies, including but not limited to documents, data files and emails. It is advised that open records requests be made in writing, either by letter or email, to avoid confusion about the date of the request and what information is being sought. Here’s the Pardon and Parole Board’s contact information and a guide on how to write open records requests.
Using records obtained from the Pardon and Parole Board, The Frontier reported last June that Board member Allen McCall had sent threatening messages to Steven Bickley, the Board’s former executive director. Bickley resigned in late July, saying “policy decisions had turned into direct attacks” and “I have been threatened for doing my job.”
The Oklahoma Open Meeting Act ensures that state agency meetings are open to the public and scheduled with at least 24 hours of advance notice. Pre-pandemic, the Pardon and Parole Board held its meetings at the Kate Barnard Correctional Center, a minimum-security women’s prison which closed over the summer and is being repurposed for administrative office and training space. The Board currently meets via zoom web conferences that are open to the public. Here’s a schedule of meetings and list of meeting minutes.
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