Capitol Beat OK

Two national conservative leaders contend: ‘Rather than serve justice, District Attorney Prater is weaponizing the justice system’

The chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU) and the executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition – in a guest column for The Oklahoman posted online last Sunday (October 31) – detailed reasons they support the state’s Pardon and Parole process. They did so while disagreeing sharply with recent actions of Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.

Matt Schlapp (of ACU) and Tim Head (of the Coalition) observed: “Julius Jones has been on death row for nearly two decades. He was convicted of killing someone during the course of a carjacking. Jones has long maintained his innocence, and there are real questions about his conviction. Supporters note that Jones’ attorneys failed to put on a meaningful defense. They neglected to call witnesses who would have testified to Jones’ alibi. Other issues include witnesses who said the triggerman had longish hair. (Jones’ head was shaved at the time.) Most problematic is that the star witness at Jones’ trial later admitted to three different cellmates that he, and not Jones, pulled the trigger. It is no coincidence that the witness cut a plea deal with the district attorney to avoid the death penalty himself by pointing the finger at Jones.”

Long critical of certain members of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, this year D.A. Prater intensified his criticisms, and pursued substantive legal actions, as it became clearer that a board majority was leaning toward recommending clemency for Jones, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Edmond civic leader Paul Howell in July 1999. Jones has been on death row for the past two decades.

In the Schlapp-Head recounting of October 31, “District Attorney David Prater decided to take matters into his own hands. He filed an unprecedented suit against two board members who voiced concerns about executing an innocent man. His claim? That Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle had conflicts of interest because of ties they both have to a nonprofit that helps people find jobs after leaving prison. If Prater could knock Luck and Doyle out, he would have a much better chance to shut down the parole board and send Jones to the death chamber.“The state Supreme Court unanimously rejected Prater’s attempt to short circuit the process, and the parole board voted 3-1 to recommend that the governor commute Jones’ sentence to life in prison. This was the first time in the state’s history that the Pardon and Parole Board had made such a recommendation, highlighting the serious questions about the Jones case.”(https://www.oklahoman.com/story/opinion/2021/10/31/david-praters-pressure-tactics-julius-jones-case-unethical/8544224002 )

Despite the earlier ruling from the state Supreme Court, Schlapp and Head recounted: “Prater [continued] to interfere in the process. He sued the parole board, hoping to overturn its decision. However, the state Supreme Court again rejected Prater’s claims — this time, by a unanimous vote. Still hoping to intimidate the governor and others who oppose his relentless death march, he empaneled a grand jury to look at members of the parole board and then publicly announced its existence. What Oklahomans are now witnessing is a district attorney abusing the vast powers to further his personal agenda.”

Although both men support the careful use of the Ultimate Sanction, they wrote, “no one wants to see an innocent person put to death. Juries do make mistakes. Since 1977, when the Supreme Court reauthorized capital punishment, 1,536 have been executed. But during the same period of time, 186 people who had been sentenced to death have been fully exonerated by DNA and other newly discovered evidence. That is a 12% error rate.”

The authors concluded their column: “There is enough uncertainty about Julius Jones’ conviction that the Pardon and Parole Board recommended that Gov. Stitt commute Jones’ sentence to life in prison. But rather than serve justice, District Attorney Prater is weaponizing the justice system for his own ends. This is nothing short of a perversion of power. It is immoral and unethical.”

As reported on October 27, Schlapp and Head previously wrote a letter to Governor Kevin Stitt supporting commutation for Jones. The letter appeared in a full-page advertisement in The Oklahoman, the state’s largest daily newspaper. Soon after the advertisement was published, key points from that letter were detailed on CapitolBeatOK.com, an independent news service based in Oklahoma City.
(https://www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/american-conservative-union-and-faith-and-freedom-coalition-support-commutation-for-julius-jones/ )

NOTE: Patrick B. McGuigan is the founder of CapitolBeatOK.com, an independent, non-partisan and locally-managed news service based in Oklahoma City. He is the co-editor of Crime and Punishment in Modern America (University Press of America/Free Congress Foundation), a compilation of essays by conservative and libertarian writers published during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.