Another Innocent Man — Julius Jones merits commutation, for starters

Pat McGuigan 
Julius Jones is innocent. He must never be executed. 
He merits not only commutation in the short term, but a finding of actual innocence in the long run.

His hearing before the Pardon and Parole (P&P) Board is set for September 13 at 10 a.m.. Some dramatics connected with the efforts of former Attorney General Mike Hunter and Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater (who is not seeking reelection) must not detract from the strong case for actual innocence in the case of Julius Jones.

Last year, state Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, laid out the case for permanent reforms in Oklahoma’s death penalty provisions.
He contributed wisdom in supporting an Interim Study that included serious examination of recommendations first made in the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission’s historic report. 
In the course of that Interim Study, McDugle made a strong case for the actual innocence of Richard Glossip.

Somehow, I had missed his March 3 letter to Governor Kevin Stitt and members of the Pardon and Parole Board. He strongly encouraged commutation of the death sentence facing Julius Jones. McDugle wrote that with commutation Oklahoma could “avoid a grave miscarriage of justice.”

He reflected, “I have often said that, if Oklahoma is going to carry out executions, it must do them right. At a minimum, that means ensuring that every prisoner on death row has received a fair trial and that no compelling evidence exists to call into question their guilt.”

Rep. McDugle’s well-sustained argument is worth quoting at length:
“In the case of Julius Jones, I believe we are falling short of that threshold on both fronts. Regarding his trial, an under-prepared and overwhelmed defense team failed to present Mr. Jones’ alibi and failed to show the jury photographs that indicate Mr. Jones did not fit the eyewitness description of the shooter. Meanwhile, the jury was never told that the prosecution’s star witness, co-defendant Christopher Jordan, was being offered a reduced sentence to testify against Mr. Jones. Each one of these developments may have offered the ‘reasonable doubt’ Mr. Jones needed to avoid conviction if they had been presented to a jury.

“Furthermore, new evidence uncovered by Mr. Jones’ defense team and documented by both ‘The Frontier’ and the ‘Washington Post’ supports the possibility that Mr. Jones is innocent and has been wrongfully imprisoned by the state for nearly two decades. The fact that multiple men, with no knowledge of each other and no ties to Mr. Jones, have individually come forward to disclose that Christopher Jordan has openly bragged about killing Paul Howell and framing his co-defendant, is a revelation that cannot be ignored. However one feels about the death penalty, it seems impossible to support the execution of one man for murder when another man has confessed on multiple occasions to committing that same murder.

“For all these reasons, I urge you to conduct a serious and fair-minded review of Mr. Jones’ case. Having reviewed the evidence available in the public record, I am confident that you will see fit to commute his sentence and avoid a grave miscarriage of justice.”

The McDugle letter should be studied by those who still support Oklahoma executions, but particularly by those who consider the Jones case “Exhibit A” in the case against the process as practiced in Oklahoma.

Dale Baich and his colleague Amanda Bass have battled long and hard for Jones. 
In a May 11 letter to Tom Bates, now the executive director at the P&P Board, Baich argued against Hunter’s attempt to intervene against Jones. (Engaging in reasonable speculation, it would not be surprising if Jones’ lawyers move to strike a protest letter Hunter, now former A.G., entered in the Jones commutation process.)

Baich vigorously opposes a plan to prevent Julius Jones from addressing the P&P Board on September 13, explicitly confronting the assertion Jones had two “misconducts”.

Baich relates that in 2020, “we sent a letter to Scott Crowe, Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections explaining why the allegations of misconduct are unfounded. … [T]he two incidents concerned the alleged possession of a cell phone charger and an alleged unauthorized conference call.”

From Baich: “March 6, 2020: Mr. Jones was strip-searched and placed semi-naked in a shower while his property was confiscated, and his cell searched. He was written up for allegedly having a cell phone charger in his possession (but no cell phone). The phone charger was never shown to Mr. Jones despite his request. Instead, he was shown a grainy photocopy of a photograph of the alleged cell phone charger that is completely indiscernible. We requested all documentation pertaining to this incident, including a video of the search. Our request was essentially ignored. We were given only another copy of the same  undecipherable photocopy, and the video of the search was not provided to us. Under the circumstances, we do not believe there is any evidence or basis to characterize this unsupported allegation as a misconduct.”

Continuing, for April 22, 2020: “Mr. Jones was written up for allegedly participating in an ‘unauthorized conference call on February 28, 2020 (with no explanation as to why the write-up happened almost two months later). That assertion is not true. To the contrary, Mr. Jones had an authorized call with his sister, during which she put him on speaker phone so he could be heard by other people who were in the room with Mr. Jones’ sister.”

Baich contends – and I agree – neither asserted event “is based on any actual evidence. The timing, lack of transparency, and the Department of Corrections’ refusal to respond to our reasonable requests is troubling. If those alleged misconducts are going to be considered by the Board, it should only be based on a full consideration of all alleged evidence, which, to date, has been withheld from us.”

(Corrections has also asserted Jones had bad results in a drug screening – but the case for that is so weak it merits mere mention, not serious consideration.) 

Baich expressed – and I agree – “that these alleged misconducts were not issued as a pretext to retaliate against Mr. Jones and prejudice his ability to get a full and fair hearing before the Board.” Further, he challenged an assertion that Corrections can keep Jones from the commutation hearing because of where he is serving his sentence: “There is no provision in the Code, nor are we aware of any authority, that would allow Mr. Jones to be excluded from appearing merely because he is housed in a maximum-security prison.”

In his letter to Bates, Baich (no shrinking violet, for which I am grateful) reports, “You note that an investigator is currently working on a report on Mr. Jones case for the Board. If the investigator needs any additional information from Mr. Jones, please have the investigator reach out directly to us as counsel, rather than going through prison staff.

Denied access to prosecution files (once promised by Prater), Baich notes that the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission recommended, “All Oklahoma district attorneys’ offices and the Office of the Attorney General should be required to allow open-file discovery at all stages of a capital case, including during the direct appeal, state post-conviction review, federal habeas corpus review, and any clemency proceedings.” 

Baich’s letter was copied to Kyle Counts, General Counsel for the P&P board, Adam Luck, Board Chair, and members C. Alien McCall, Larry Morris, Kelley Doyle, and Scott Williams
Originally set for June, the long-anticipated hearing has already slipped into the fall. Pressures on the board (including announced investigations of members) smack of inappropriate pressure. 

Some wonder if D.A. Prater is following the 2013 playbook develop in a previous round of pressure on the board. 

The unwillingness to surrender files promised in the past raises many questions. 
If the withheld evidence is a slam dunk, if they are so sure of the contents, why not share the information with defense lawyers and the general public? 

There are some who wait on federal courts to show up, like Deus Ex Machina from ancient Greek plays, to rescue the state from the worst abuses of the death penalty process. But that is not the job of the judiciary.

Elected representatives and public officials would best serve the state by ending the discredited system of capital punishment as actually practiced. 

Short of that, responsible players in our state government should at least work through the process to take the worst cases off the table – right now, or at least this year.