Oklahoma City University’s Law Dean Emeritus Lawrence K. Hellman encourages Governor Kevin Stitt to save the life of Julius Jones

Oklahoma City — In a letter to the editor posted online by in The Oklahoman, the state’s largest newspaper, a respected legal scholar and past dean of one of the three schools of law in the state, has encouraged Governor Kevin Stitt to spare the life of death row inmate Julius Jones.

Despite the nature of the issue at hand, the letter by Lawrence K. Hellman read as pragmatic persuasion to err on the side of mercy in the case, which has attracted increasing worldwide scrutiny as new questions arise about Jones’ conviction in the murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell in 1999. Professor Hellman’s open letter to the state’s chief executive began:

“I do not know whether Julius Jones is guilty or innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced to be executed by the State of Oklahoma. Neither do you. Yes, he was convicted by a jury, and that conviction was upheld by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. But the same was true for seven other Oklahomans who, since 1981, remarkably were found to be actually innocent before their capital sentences were carried out. Each exoneration came many years after the individual had been placed on death row to await execution. One person’s exoneration came within days of his scheduled killing.

“The decision before you is not whether to declare Mr. Jones innocent and set him free. This is not his request. Nor is it the recommendation of the Pardon and Parole Board. Rather, the Board recommends that you grant Mr. Jones clemency by commuting his death sentence to the lesser (but still severe) sentence of life with the possibility of parole.”
(https://www.oklahoman.com/story/opinion/2021/11/14/letter-editor-gov-kevin-stitt-can-support-death-penalty-still-spare-julius-jones/8617242002/ )

Dean Hellman’s letter continued, “The Board’s recommendation is unprecedented in Oklahoma history. It is premised on the Board’s conclusion, after hearing lengthy presentations from representatives of both Mr. Jones and the State, that there is sufficient doubt about Mr. Jones’s guilt that his life should be spared.

“The seven death row exonerations, plus another 31 Oklahoma exonerations in non-capital cases since 1993 (including 17 sentences of life or life without parole), support the prudence of the Board’s recommendation. Collectively, these many exonerations demonstrate that our criminal justice system can be fallible. And a wrongful conviction can affect any of us, regardless of race or background.”

Hellman argued, with technical accuracy, that the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation “does not reflect the Board’s belief that Mr. Jones is innocent or that his conviction should be set aside. Nor does it reflect the Board’s opposition to the use of the death penalty in our state. Rather, it reflects the judgment of this non-partisan body that, in this particular case, the risk of factual error in Mr. Jones’s conviction is sufficient to warrant sparing his life – the remainder of which may be spent in prison.”

Dr. Hellman concluded, “Governor Stitt, you can accept the Board’s unprecedented recommendation in this case without disrupting the jury’s verdict of guilt and without casting doubt on your support for the death penalty. I urge you to do so.”

In addition to his past work as a professor and as dean of the law school at the institution founded in the Methodist tradition, Hellman founded the Oklahoma Innocence Project in 2011. The biographical note posted at the conclusion of Hellman’s pointed out, “He is no longer associated with that Project, and his views do not represent the views of the Project or Oklahoma City University. He has no involvement with the Julius Jones case.”

Hellman’s letter is one in a series of significant developments in the Jones case.

Beginning with a full-page advertisement in The Oklahoman, then in a blunt commentary, and most recently in interviews conducted by well-known conservative analysts, the behavior of the Oklahoma County District Attorney‘s office has come under withering criticism from leading American conservatives. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UM8dlPjlI30)

They have joined their criticisms to those emanating from national “Progressive” or Liberal voices over the course of several years (https://www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/delayed-until-february-25-justice-for-julius-coalition-to-hold-rally-and-petition-delivery-of-over-six-million-signatures/).

The recent focus has raised many of the same issues, albeit from a traditional “limited government” point of view. (https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=4527951207285862&ref=sharing)

Biographical Note and Disclosure: Author Patrick B. McGuigan is the founder and editor of CapitolBeatOK.com, an independent, non-partisan and locally-managed news organization based in Oklahoma City. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, and a dues-paying member of the Oklahoma Coalition Against the Death Penalty (OK-CADP).