COMMENTARY — Saving Julius Jones: A time for truth, and a time for wisdom
Published: June 11th, 2020
OKLAHOMA CITY – Members of the Oklahoma State Pardon and Parole Board are asking Attorney General Mike Hunter whether or not they have the authority to consider requests for commutation of sentences (https://www.kosu.org/post/oklahoma-pardon-and-parole-board-asks-legal-opinion-commutation-request) imposed on death row inmates in our state.
Those of us convinced that Julius Jones (http://city-sentinel.com/2019/01/commentary-lets-call-the-whole-thing-off-as-policy-and-for-principle-no-more-executions/), Richard Glossip (http://city-sentinel.com/2016/02/more-than-the-richard-glossip-case-for-the-constitution-for-social-justice-for-reasons-pragmatic-and-humane-put-the-death-penalty-into-mothballs/), and perhaps others are actually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted have hoped the P&P Board would move forward in the process, announced in February, of reviewing certain death penalty cases.
That original movement toward hearings came after the state government announced it had prepared protocols to restore lethal injections (http://city-sentinel.com/2020/02/oklahoma-to-resume-state-killings-after-acquiring-same-lethal-injection-drugs-used-in-botched-executions/)
as a means for executions.
Frankly, the P&P Board’s indication of uncertainty (https://www.readfrontier.org/stories/it-will-be-intense-board-prepares-for-clemency-requests-following-execution-restart/) about its legal authority is worrisome, as it seemed to provide a way to, at the least, save the lives of some of those convicted of a capital crime in the state’s troubled system.
In recent weeks, passion to save Jones’ life – and, for many, to clear his name – has grown. Three National Basketball Association stars (https://nondoc.com/2020/06/03/westbrook-griffin-young-commute-sentence-julius-jones/) with ties to Oklahoma sent state officials letters weeks ago – long before the death of George Floyd triggered despair for many, and before the looting and rioting that ripped the nation’s cities apart.
After attorneys filed a clemency application (https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5d4df5acea4f970001e70135/t/5da3dafde7deee2135f26183/1571019558817/2019_1015_clemency_app.pdf) last October on behalf Jones’ with the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole board, an urgent letter writing (http://city-sentinel.com/2019/11/julius-jones-clemency-petition-spurs-letter-writing-social-media-campaign/) and social media campaign drew great support from the public as well as from notables such as attorney Bryan Stevenson (https://eji.org/bryan-stevenson/), Kim Karshashian West and U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma City.
In recent days, a online petition from Change.org (a group with which I am not customarily affiliated, but they are doing the right thing, here) is nearing 6 million signatures (https://www.change.org/p/documented-by-academy-award-winner-viola-davis-julius-tennon-julius-jones-life-hangs-in-the-balance-of-the-oklahoma-death-row-watch-the-last-defense-and-sign-the-petition-help-us-petition-oklahoma-leaders-to-give-julius-a-fair-opportunity) in support of Jones.
A.G. Hunter is an unlikely suspect, pardon the expression, to play a role in saving the life of Julius Jones. Yet, he found his way to authorizing a strong (and effective) argument to the U.S. Supreme Court in a completely unrelated matter after initially advancing a weak legal position in defending state authority in one of the most important issues touching Indian Country (http://city-sentinel.com/2020/05/attorney-general-mike-hunter-comments-following-oral-arguments-in-mcgirt-v-oklahoma-at-the-u-s-supreme-court/) in recent decades. Perhaps he can revisit this entire matter in light of the P&P Board’s request for guidance – and find a new way forward.
Regardless of Hunter’s disposition, Gov. Kevin Stitt should indicate his support for substantive review of the most troubled capital punishment cases. This chief executive has done more for criminal justice reform, in a pro-active way, than any governor in my life time. He supported meaningful reforms that could have been implemented 12 years ago, and gone even further than the original template.
Stitt and his wife Sarah hosted a meaningful conversation on the searing issues that are dividing Americans and Oklahomans over the past few weeks. I have absolutely no doubt about their sincerity in that and other matters.
Jones’ only hope right now is for a substantive, meaningful review (http://city-sentinel.com/2020/02/attorneys-challenge-oklahomas-proposed-return-to-risky-and-incomplete-lethal-injection-protocol/) of the multiple holes in the process that led to his conviction for a 1999 murder. The person described in eye-witness testimony in that case had long curly hair that was sticking out from under a red bandanna identified as covering the head of the shooter. Trouble is, Jones’ hair was short (almost shaved) at the time (https://drive.google.com/file/d/1I3SZT55f_3mMqUm5WgqeV-W_sbqCxSxt/view)
And his family said he was at home at the time of the crime.
Additionally, the case file that Jones’ attorneys were promised (http://city-sentinel.com/2018/09/us-supreme-court-to-consider-julius-jones-petition-on-sept-24-while-local-judge-splits-the-difference-on-dna-review/) they could review has never been released.
The record for broken promises in this and certain other cases helps to make the argument against the death penalty – but especially in this one. No one in their right mind could possibly want process defense (to coin a term, perhaps) alone to be the reason that Oklahoma has another name added to the lengthening list of death row exonerations (https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/policy-issues/innocence) across America.
Attorney General Hunter: Allow a full and meaningful review of the Jones case, from beginning to recent days. Encourage the local D.A. to keep his promise to open the case files.
Pardon and Parole Board members: Withdraw your request for a Hunter opinion and continue on the path to justice.
Governor Stitt: Lend your voice to those seeking the full story, and do your part to commute the Jones sentence.
Oklahomans: Practical considerations aside, the events of these past few years should be viewed as a call to something better. It is time for an end to one era, and for the start of another. No more executions in Oklahoma. Now and forever more.
NOTE: Pat McGuigan is publisher of The City Sentinel newspaper in Oklahoma City, and founder of CapitolBeatOK.com, an online news website. A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, he is the author of thousands of commentaries, news stories and analyses of criminal justice issues. McGuigan also is editor of seven books, including ‘Crime and Punishment in Modern America’ (University Press of America), and the author of three books.