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In less than two months, Julius Jones is set to die.
Yet, earlier this month the Oklahoma Parole Board voted in a 3-1 decision to recommend commuting Jones’ sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Board members admitted they “have doubts” about the case, according to TIME.
As time runs down until Jones’ scheduled execution, the final decision about his fate is now in the hands of Gov. Kevin Stitt, who will decide whether to take the parole board’s recommendation or move forward with the execution—which was scheduled just one week after the parole board’s decision.
“It’s just so dangerous and it makes it wholly apparent how broken our system is,” Rev. Cece Jones-Davis, a leader in the Justice for Julius movement, told Oxygen.com. “Anytime someone can get a recommendation from the parole board, which is appointed to…make these kinds of decisions one Monday and the court in the same state says ‘well, because we can, we are going to go ahead and issue this date' the very next Monday. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be laughable, you know, but it’s a real testament to just how broken the system is and what a desperate situation Julius Jones is in.”
Jones attorney, Amanda Bass, echoed a similar sentiment in comments made to ABC News.
“We think Julius was wrongfully convicted and that Oklahoma is at risk of executing an innocent man,” she said.
Jones’ case has attracted the attention of community activists, NBA stars and celebrities including criminal justice advocate Kim Kardashian—who have all advocated for justice for Jones, citing what they believe is racial bias, a flawed investigation and subpar defense that landed Jones on death row for the 1999 slaying of a prominent Oklahoma City businessman.
The parole board has possibly altered that narrative this month after deciding to recommend a commuted sentence for Julius on Sept. 13.
“Personally, I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubts. And put simply, I have doubts about this case,” Board Chairman Adam Luck said at the hearing of the decision, according to TIME.
Antionette Jones, Julius’ sister, said his family was encouraged by the parole board’s decision in the case, but they know there’s still work to be done.
“I’m still in shock, because it’s not over, you know? We still have so much ground [to] cover,” she told ABC News.
Jones-Davis, who has no relation to Julius himself, told Oxygen.com that Julius—now 41 years old--remains optimistic about the parole board’s decision, even as the execution date looms.
“One thing that’s really impressive about Julius is that he’s always able to maintain perspective and he’s always able to maintain a deep level of hope,” she said. “He is working to be as optimistic as he can be. You know he has dreams now.”
Under the parole board’s recommendation, Julius could one day be released on parole. Jones-Davis said he's already planning a life outside the prison walls mentoring young boys. His mom is fixing up his room at the family's home.
"I think that the parole's board decision shows it doesn't take a scientist or a lawyer or a judge to see that some things went horribly wrong for Julius Jones in the legal system," she said. "Those three board members who voted saw what we've been saying for three years now, saw the issues for what they were, had the documentation from the prosecutor and the defense and at the end of that hearing, voted 3-1 that Julius deserved a commutation."
Julius was convicted in 2002 killing of Oklahoma businessman Paul Howell in a 1999 carjacking.
Howell, who had been sitting in his GMC Suburban, was shot in the head.
His sister, Megan Tobey, witnessed the shooting and told police her brother was killed by a young black man wearing a stocking cap and red bandana over his face.
Julius’ co-defendant Chris Jordan, later testified against Julius in exchange for the state dropping the death penalty in his own case.
“What Chris testified to was that he and Julius were out driving around looking for a Suburban to carjack and that they followed Mr. Howell to his home and that Julius got out of the car, went up to the window to take the car and shot Mr. Howell,” Julius’ attorney Dale Baich told Oxygen.com last year.
However, Baich said Jordan—who claimed to be only the getaway driver—had made “six or seven different statements” to police about the crime and two inmates who spent time with Jordan at a county jail would later say that he had bragged about carrying out the killing himself.
Investigators discovered a gun and red banana in an upstairs room in Julius’ parents’ home; however, his defense team said Jordan had been staying at the home the night after the killing.
“His parents, sister, and brother say that he was at home that evening,” Baich said. “They had a spaghetti dinner. The family was just sort of hanging out that evening.”
Despite the family’s insistence that Julius was with them that night, Baich said his initial defense team never called any witnesses to the stand during his trial to corroborate his alibi.
For more than two decades, he has continued to proclaim his innocence.
“As God is my witness, I was not involved in any way in the crimes that led to Howell being shot and killed,” he said in a clemency report. “I have spent the past 20 years on death row for a crime I did not commit, did not witness and was not at. I feel terrible for Mr. Howell and his family but I was not responsible.”
Supporters of the former high school basketball player believe his case was also marred by racial bias.
In his clemency report, Julius alleged that when he was taken into custody he was “handcuffed, and dragged to a police car.”
“The officers were high fiving one another and told me ‘You know you’re gonna fry,’” he wrote.
While being transferred from an Oklahoma City Police car to an Edmond police car, Julius said one of the officers removed his handcuffs and told him “Run n-----, I dare you.’”
Julius said he knew if he moved, he would have likely been shot and killed.
Despite the allegations by Julius and his defense team, Jordan’s attorney, Billy Bock, said in a statement to ABC News that his client stands by his story that he only acted as a getaway driver.
“Chris Jordan maintains his position that his role in the death of Paul Howell was as an accomplice to Julius Jones,” he said. “Mr. Jordan testified truthfully in the jury trial of Mr. Jones and denies ‘confessing’ to anyone.”
Jordan was released from prison after serving 15 years behind bars.
His case was the subject of a Viola Davis-produced documentary on ABC in 2018 titled “The Last Defense.”
Now, with an execution date set for Nov. 18, Julius’ supporters—including Jones-Davis—are hoping Stitt will take the parole board’s recommendation.
“The governor has to weigh in and he has to weigh in soon,” she said.
Without any action, Jones-Davis said Julius could go on what’s called “death watch” sometime in mid-October.
“It’s crucial that the governor take the recommendation of his board as fast as possible because this is what we were trying to avoid,” she said of the advocacy group’s efforts over the years. “Once somebody has an execution date, it’s like a freight train. It’s very difficult to try to stop and we were trying to avoid all of this to save the life of an innocent man.”
Howell’s family, however, has said they were “devastated” by the parole board’s decision.
“The truth is that 12 jurors found Julius Jones guilty of murdering Paul Howell,” they said in a statement obtained by TIME, adding that courts have reviewed the conviction and upheld it for the last 18 years.
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