With less than 48 hours remaining until Oklahoma’s scheduled execution of Julius Jones, Gov. Kevin Stitt has yet to announce whether he’ll grant executive clemency to the condemned man.
Stitt can accept, modify or reject the state Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation that Jones’ sentence be modified to life in prison. The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Criminal Appeals denied an execution stay request from Jones and three other death row prisoners on Friday, leaving the decision in Stitt’s hands.
Jones, who was convicted of murdering Edmond businessman Paul Howell in 1999, is scheduled to be executed at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. He maintains his innocence. The Howell family argues the evidence is overwhelming and Jones’ execution should be carried out.
Three governors who preceded Stitt—Frank Keating, Brad Henry and Mary Fallin—faced similar decisions on executive clemency. The state Pardon and Parole Board, whose members are appointed by the governor, recommended clemency for 13 death row prisoners between 2001 and 2013.
Just four of those recommendations were approved.
Political circumstances can influence a governor’s decision in death penalty cases, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center. Public support for capital punishment peaked in the mid-2000s, when three in five Americans supported the death penalty, and has steadily declined over the past decade.
An October survey from Sooner Poll showed a majority of Oklahomans still favor capital punishment, but the results may not be an accurate indicator of public support for executing Jones. A growing group of conservatives and Republican state lawmakers who support the death penalty have joined Democrats in asking Stitt to accept the Pardon and Parole Board’s clemency recommendation.
“Factors that may influence the Board of Pardons are certainly important, but they’re not a guarantee that the governor is going to be persuaded,” Dunham said. “As Governor Stitt has indicated, his decision is not limited to the evidence that was before the board.”
As of Tuesday evening, there’s no timetable on when Stitt will announce his decision. Dunham believes it’s unlikely Stitt is intentionally delaying the decision, but said a ruling made hours before the scheduled execution would be scarring to both the Howell and Jones family.
“It would be especially cruel if it got to the point where they’re in waiting rooms waiting to find out whether they’ll go into the execution or not,” he said. “I don’t think that’s anything that anybody wants to happen.”
Last-minute execution stays are occasionally granted. In 2018, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott granted clemency to death row prisoner Thomas Whitaker 30 minutes before his scheduled execution. The Georgia Board of Pardons, which does not need the governor’s approval in clemency decisions, spared the life of death row prisoner Jimmy Meders six hours before his scheduled execution.
As Stitt decides whether to call off Jones’ execution, here’s how previous governors approached executive clemency:
Gov. Frank Keating, 1995-2003
Keating, a Republican, approved one clemency request and denied three others.
On April 10, 2001, Keating spared the life of Phillip Dewitt Smith, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Matthew Dean Taylor. No eyewitnesses or physical evidence linked Smith to the crime.
Keating said he believed Smith committed the murder but lacked the “moral certainty” that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Keating rejected three other clemency recommendations from July 2001 through December 2002.
Gov. Brad Henry, 2003-2011
Henry, a Democrat, granted clemency to three condemned men. He declined to call off four other executions.
On May 13, 2004, Henry commuted death row prisoner Osbaldo Torres’ sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Torres, a Mexican citizen, was not notified of his right to contact the Mexican consulate and seek legal representation, a violation of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.
Henry commuted Kevin Young’s sentence to life without parole on July 24, 2008. Young was sentenced to death in 1996 for shooting and killing a man in a robbery gone wrong. During a clemency hearing, Young’s attorneys argued the murder was not premeditated and did not warrant the death penalty.
Henry’s final clemency approval came on May 19, 2010, when he spared the life of Richard Tandy Smith. During a clemency hearing, Smith’s attorneys argued that the state improperly used his criminal record to prove aggravating circumstances in the 1986 murder of John Cederlund. Smith remains incarcerated at the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre.
Gov. Mary Fallin, 2011-2019
Fallin, a Republican, reviewed two clemency recommendations and rejected both.
In 2005, the state Pardon and Parole Board recommended Garry Thomas Allen’s sentence be commuted to life without parole. Allen’s attorneys argued that the death row prisoner’s mental state had deteriorated while incarcerated and he should be spared from capital punishment.
After seven years of legal challenges and execution stays, Fallin declined to commute Allen’s death sentence on March 13, 2012. Allen was executed by lethal injection eight months later.
During a June 6, 2013 clemency hearing, Brian Darrell Davis apologized for raping and murdering his girlfriend’s mother, 52-year-old Josephine Stanford. The Board voted 4-1 to recommend his sentence be commuted to life without parole. Fallin opted not to modify the sentence. Jack Fisher, Davis’ attorney, told the Associated Press he was not surprised by the decision.
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