Oklahoma Republican state legislators support clemency for Julius Jones, and Catholic Archbishop advocates ‘a culture of life’

A group of Republican state legislators – including two from Edmond – have asked Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt to grant clemency to death row inmate Julius Jones. In related news, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City has advanced, in a national magazine with a worldwide readership, his passionate reasoning against all future executions in the state.

Convicted of murdering Edmond businessman Paul Howell in 1999, Jones has maintained his innocence for more than two decades. Over recent years, his attorneys have built evidence in support of contentions Jones is innocent and, on November 1 the state Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 to recommend the Jones sentence be commuted to life with the possibility of parole.

This week, Edmond state Representatives Garry Mize and Preston Stinson urged Stitt to ratify the Parole Board recommendation.

In a press release circulated by the “Justice for Julius” coalition, Rep. Mize said, “The last thing the state should be doing is taking the life of someone who may be innocent.“There is too much doubt here, especially given that Julius Jones’ codefendant has confessed to being the real murderer. We can’t move forward with an execution under these circumstances in good conscience. I hope and pray Gov. Stitt accepts the recommendation of his Parole Board.”Rep. Stinson said he believes the Board’s recommended clemency is appropriate: “Paul Howell’s murder was a terrible tragedy for his family and this entire community.“More than two decades later, however, I have many constituents who still have questions. Our judicial system gives judges and juries the responsibility to determine guilt and sentencing. However, the Pardon and Parole Board also plays a role in this system, and in this case, they have recommended clemency. For that reason, I am asking Gov. Stitt to take him off of death row and accept the recommendation of his Pardon and Parole Board.”Three other GOP legislators – Reps. John Talley of Stillwater, Logan Phillips of Mounds, and Kevin McDugle of Broken Arrow – supported their Edmond colleagues in statements advocating clemency for Jones.

Talley said, “If we believe, as conservatives, in law and order and the criminal justice system, then we have to make sure the system is getting it right.“In this case, the Pardon and Parole Board spent several hours looking at the case, during two separate hearings and determined that it may not have. We should not execute a man in that context.” You just can’t be sure in this case,” said Phillips in comments circulated by the coalition.“There is a lot of information – including an alibi, a witness description and a confession from another man who says he’s the real killer – that the jury never heard. With so much uncertainty, I urge the Governor to take the recommendation sent to him twice now by his Pardon and Parole Board.”

Rep. McDugle, who has previously expressed strong support for a Jones commutation, added, “Putting someone to death should be the highest bar to meet, and when there is doubt we just can’t do it!”Early this year, he wrote a letter to Gov. Stitt encouraging him to commute Jones’ sentence and avoid a “grave miscarriage of justice.”

*Writing for America, a regular publication of the Jesuit order of priests, Archbishop Coakley reasoned,

“If we mean to build a culture of life, we must commit anew to emptying death row and abolishing capital punishment. We are at a crossroads in the United States as we wrestle with the question of inherent human dignity — born and unborn, innocent and guilty, young and old, well and infirm. Amid the perennial debate over abortion and euthanasia, the use of the death penalty is often overlooked as a life issue.”(https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2021/10/28/death-penalty-archbishop-coakley-oklahoma-city-241729?fbclid=IwAR3nBhM4LRio4jp-ZUkE77sqwOVFyJlUNtReMye4nu5pjnFTQFR58_vzLGQ )

Coakley pointed to multiple examples to support his contention that the use of the death penalty “in the United States is irreparably broken. The church recognizes the grave harm done to victims and the need for healing and justice. It also understands that executions only perpetuate cycles of violence and often provide no measure of healing for families.”

He observed, “Capital punishment has faded more and more into obscurity over the decades, both in the United States and in the world at large. A majority of states have distanced themselves from the death penalty, with 23 having fully outlawed the practice and 13 others have gone 10 or more years without an execution.”

Further, the Archbishop outlined “compelling practical arguments against the death penalty. The system of capital punishment is riddled with flaws, including alarming wrongful conviction rates, widespread racial bias, arbitrariness and a proclivity for targeting vulnerable populations such as people with intellectual disabilities and severe mental illness.”

As he pointed out, “Since 1973, at least 186 death row inmates have been exonerated, and for every nine inmates executed, at least one person on death row is ultimately found to be innocent. Should a system of such moral gravity be allowed to operate with this gross imprecision?”

He also pointed to racial bias “in capital cases, with a staggering 25 percent of inmates on death row represented by an attorney who was later disbarred, suspended, reprimanded or arrested. The inability for poor and minority defendants to afford competent defense counsel is one of the greatest injustices in the criminal justice system.”

He stressed that “holding an inmate on death row costs taxpayers nine times more than incarcerating a prisoner for life. Due to the lengthy appeals process and the need for additional trial phases unique to capital cases, states with the death penalty spend tens of millions more annually just to meet statutory requirements for death row inmates.”

Coakley concluded his essay: “The burdens of trauma and violence weigh heavily on our country and world these days; this is our opportunity to reject a culture of death and build up a culture of life.”