Advocates for Julius Jones respond to commutation vote, as Pardon and Parole proceeding affirms Oklahoma’s legal provisions: News Analysis

Patrick B. McGuigan 
Oklahoma City – In wake of Monday’s historic Pardon and Parole vote favoring commutation (to a sentence of life with the possibility of parole) for death row inmate Julius Jones, there was widespread rejoicing among his advocates. 
Critics of capital punishment and of Oklahoma’s death penalty process quickly embraced the 3-1 vote recommending commutation to Governor Kevin Stitt

Rev. Cece Jones-Davis, who leads the “Justice for Julius Jones” movement, said in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations: 

“We are thankful that the Pardon and Parole Board recommended Julius’ sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole. Although that recommendation means he will not be walking out a free man as soon as we hoped, Julius would be able to spend his days inside prison no longer on death row and, in the future, be eligible for parole.

“We pray that Governor Stitt will accept this recommendation or commute his sentence to time served so that Julius is able to return home to his family for the first time in over 20 years.” 

Oklahoma’s Catholic bishops, defenders of the sanctity of human life from its start until natural death, also embraced the board’s recommendation. 
The Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City, and the Most Rev. David A. Konderla, Bishop of Tulsa, said in a joint statement:

“We are encouraged by the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation today for commutation of the death sentence for Julius Jones. We have an opportunity to end capital punishment in Oklahoma and to use other means to protect society and seek justice for victims of crime and their families without violating each person’s God-given dignity. We urge Gov. Stitt to accept the board’s recommendation.” 

A spokesman for Stitt – who had defended his appointees to the Pardon and Parole panel as persons of integrity – said after the board vote the governor would not comment on the case until he announces his decision on the commutation request. 
After Monday’s vote, defenders of Jones, and indeed advocates for his execution, pointed to past instances when chief executives have not followed commutation recommendations.  

Before Monday’s proceedings, Jones lawyers, legal analysts and journalists who have reported on the case anticipated that a vote favoring Jones with some form of commutation was possible, and perhaps likely.
However, the actual vote was a direct and practical affirmation of the impact that accumulating concrete evidence of Jones’ actual innocence had eroded the case for implementing the Ultimate Sanction, at least in this case. 
While Oklahomans reaffirmed the death penalty in a statewide vote within the past decade, opinion polls have indicated a majority do not support Jones’ execution. And, overall support or the death penalty per se has eroded. 

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater had pressed to prevent a majority of the five-member board from even voting on the submitted commutation for Jones. 
He sued Pardon and Parole Board members Kelly Doyle and Adam Luck and petitioned the state High Court to remove them from voting. 

The state Supreme Court, in a succinct order last Friday (September 10) slapped down the Prater litigation, with Chief Justice Noma D. Gurich writing, “Petitioner’s request for an order directing Respondents [Luck and Doyle] to refrain from participating in the commutation proceedings relating to Julius Darius Jones, including the commutation hearing … set for Monday, September 13, 2021, is hereby denied.”

Despite that Court denial, D.A. Prater sought the recusal of the board’s newest member, Scott Williams, asserting the Williams’ relationship with an attorney arguing in favor of Jones amounted to a conflict of interest. 
Although not agreeing a conflict of interest existed, Williams announced he would not to vote on the Jones commutation matter. 

The Pardon and Parole Board is a constitutional agency, and the state’s chief executive has explicit constitutional powers in the death penalty process. In fact, governors have power in most states that retain capital punishment to impede or prevent executions, or to impact their timing. 
Governor Stitt’s nominees to the Pardon and Parole Board bring to the panel long-stated perspectives on criminal justice issues that incline toward reform of the state’s legal system, including the matter of capital punishment. 

Aside from this particular case the controversy of recent months raised a lot of issues, including contentions that  Jones must be executed for process reasons (finality of judgment) no matter what happened in the administrative process and in spite of evidence his attorneys have gathered that a person other than murdered Edmond civic leader Paul Howell in the driveway of his home in 1999. 

Statutory and other provisions for pardon, parole and commutation – including for the execution process – have evolved in recent years, while remaining rooted in the state’s constitutional strictures. 
In this particular proceeding, attacks and public pressure – on the governor’s appointment powers, on the Pardon and Parole Board as a body and on its individual members, and ultimately on the state chief executive’s powers – fell short.