OKLAHOMA CITY — Questions are being asked about Gov. Kevin Stitt’s executive order on Thursday barring future governors from implementing post-conviction relief in the case of Julius Jones.
Ed Blau, an Oklahoma City defense attorney and former prosecutor, said if new evidence points to Jones’ innocence, then the case could be reopened.
But given what’s out there now and the fact that Jones, 41, has had several rounds of post-conviction appeals that have been fully litigated, Blau said “the door is pretty much closed” on Jones’ remaining legal options.
Hours before Jones’ scheduled execution on Thursday, Stitt opted to grant Jones clemency, sparing him from death, and instead ordered him to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. That followed a recommendation earlier this month by the state’s Pardon and Parole Board that Jones’ sentence should be commuted to life with the possibility of parole because of concerns about the conviction.
Jones has always maintained that he is innocent of the murder of 45-year-old insurance executive Paul Howell in Edmond in 1999, and that he was framed by a friend who was a co-defendant who testified against him. However, the Oklahoma County District Attorney and a former attorney general maintain Jones was properly convicted.
But then in an unprecedented executive order, Stitt also ordered that Jones never be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon or parole for the remainder of his life.
Such commutations themselves are uncommon, said Maria Kolar, a law professor with Oklahoma City University, who specializes in capital punishment. Before Jones’ commutation Thursday, there had been 13 similar recommendations from 2001 to 2013, she said. Four of those were granted — one by former Republican Gov. Frank Keating and three by former Democratic Gov. Brad Henry. All four of those men remain behind bars today, serving sentences of life without parole.
But Stitt’s attempt to ban specific post-conviction options for Jones raised eyebrows in legal circles along with questions about whether Stitt and future attorneys general can enforce the order on future governors and on future Pardon and Parole Boards.
“I think it’s pretty clear what he wants to do,” Kolar said. “He wants it to be settled. He wants to assure the family and the public that Julius Jones will never be freed. I don’t think he can do that. I don’t think he can do that in fact, and I don’t think he can do that legally, constitutionally.”
Kolar previously worked in the homicide appeals division of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System and also served as a law clerk on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals.
She said the state Constitution does give Stitt the power to put conditions on a commutation, but the question is whether he can go as far as he did, which is prohibit Jones from even applying for commutation, pardon or parole, prohibit a future Pardon and Parole Board from considering or recommending commutation, and prohibit a future governor from granting it.
“I think the question is an open one in terms of not previously being decided in Oklahoma,” Kolar said. “But I think it would be quite surprising if a court were to hold that he did have that power.”
She said it “would be strange indeed” if a sitting governor could limit constitutional authority granted to the Pardon and Parole Board and to future governors, so she considered it unlikely that Stitt’s order can actually bind those future institutions.
The Governor’s Office on Friday issued a statement saying that “the life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole is absolutely permanent. Julius Jones will never be eligible to apply for or be considered for or receive any additional commutation, pardon or parole.”
Jones’ lawyers had no comment Friday, but the family is not happy with Stitt’s restrictions. “While we are grateful that Gov. Stitt did not execute Julius, the fact is he is in prison serving a life sentence for a crime he did not commit,” said Antoinette Jones, Julius Jones’ sister. “We aren’t yet sure what our legal options are or what the path forward looks like, but we are still committed to bringing Julius home, and we will never give up that fight.”
The family of Paul Howell on Thursday said, “We take comfort that his decision affirmed the guilt of Julius Jones and that he shall not be eligible to apply for, or be considered for, a commutation, pardon or parole for the remainder of his life.”
Blau, the Oklahoma City defense attorney, believes Jones is already barred by state statute or administrative rules from asking for another commutation for the same murder conviction, as well as from being paroled from a life-without-parole sentence. He also said it didn’t take an executive order to ensure that, but if state statutes or administrative rules change, or the state's top executive wants to pardon Jones, it’s not clear whether Stitt’s executive order would remain binding on future governors or Pardon and Parole Boards.
“That’s going to come down to the courts if that happens,” Blau said, adding that he’s certain the Attorney General’s Office would seek an immediate injunction to stop that from happening.
Pardons, meanwhile, are difficult to get and are usually given to those who have committed a relatively minor crime decades earlier for which they’ve repented, not murder in the first degree that originally resulted in a death sentence, Blau said.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle for Julius to get a pardon, I can tell you that much,” Blau said. “Given the evidence that there is now, and given the legal posture of his case the last 10 to 15 years, absent a pardon from a future governor, his legal options are non-existent. “
Rachel Roberts, a spokeswoman for Attorney General John O’Connor said: “There is no right to appeal the decision of the governor.”
But Kristin Josephs, an attorney with Kuykendall Law in Norman, thinks Stitt’s order might not survive a legal challenge, adding: “I don’t think he can bind the hands and the power of a future governor.”
Josephs said if someone came forward with bombshell evidence that exonerates Jones, she doesn’t believe any governor can deny pardoning him at that point.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.