Life or Death: Julius Jones’ Fate Now in the Hands of Oklahoma Governor

Megan Swedberg, Scarlet Staff

*Note: At the time of writing this article, Jones had not received clemency.

On July 28, 1999, Paul Howell, a loving son, brother, and father of two, was carjacked and murdered in the driveway of his parent’s home. Just three days later, nineteen-year-old Julius Jones was arrested and convicted of Howell’s murder.

In a recent hearing on Monday Nov. 1, twenty-two years after the homicide, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted 3-1 to recommend clemency for Julius Jones, and to reduce his death sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Despite this recommendation, Jones’ execution remains scheduled for Nov. 18. The final decision on whether Jones will live or die is now left to Governor Kevin Stitt.

The recommendation for clemency comes from a development of uncertainty in Jones’ guilt based on a plethora of evidence that has surfaced over the years since his conviction. Much of this evidence suggests that he may be an innocent man behind bars. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Chairman himself expressed such uncertainty, saying “I believe in death penalty cases there should be no doubt, and put simply, I have doubts in this case.”

According to CBS News, eyewitnesses from the night of the murder “reported seeing a Black man with a red bandana and 1-2 inches of hair.” At the time of his arrest, however, Jones had a shaved head, thus failing to fit the suspect profile. His family also reported that on July 28, Jones was home with them “eating spaghetti and cornbread” for dinner and “playing Monopoly.”  

Jones’ alibi, placing him at home with his family on that fateful night in July, was not presented at his original trial and his family claims that they were unable to testify for years about his whereabouts due to an inadequate and inexperienced defense team. 

According to the Washington Post, Jones’ case was the first capital murder case his public defender had ever taken and he made several, critical mistakes. These included neglecting to provide photographic evidence during the trial. David McKenzie, the lead attorney in Jones’ case admitted to his missteps, stating “If I had presented the photographs of the confessions and the prior statements, I believe Mr. Jones would’ve been acquitted.” 

Besides having an unequipped defense counsel, Jones’ family also claims that his original trial was unfair because it was tainted with racial bias. This claim is supported by the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 1992 for the purpose of exonerating the wrongly convicted and reforming the criminal justice system. The Innocence Project delineates several instances of discriminatory behavior that occurred over the course of Jones’ arrest and conviction.

While Mr. Howell was a white man killed in a predominantly white community, the media, influenced largely by District Attorney Bob Macy, immediately characterized the crime as an act of drug-related violence committed by Black men. Additionally, the officer who arrested Jones’ threatened the nineteen-year-old, calling him the n-word and daring him to outrun the bullets of his gun. Plus, eleven of twelve jurors at Jones’ trial were white, and (according to a statement by one juror) another juror said “Well, they should just take that n—– out back, shoot him and bury him under the jail. It didn’t matter what happened, this was a black man that was on trial for murder. He did it.”

This racial profiling only adds to a long history of the death penalty lacking fair application. A 2015 study conducted by professor David Baldus and statistician George Woodworth concluded that “a black defendant is four times more likely to receive a death sentence than a white defendant for a similar crime.” They argue that this likely results from the fact that “those most responsible for determining which cases to pursue are white.” The concept of capital punishment in itself is already questionable, but sentencing someone, in this case Jones, to death on account of obvious systematic corruption and prejudice is simply wrong.

Besides the shameful errors in Jones’ trial that led to his conviction, today’s present uncertainty in his guilt is further cultivated by evidence pointing to another perpetrator. In 2018, a documentary on Julius Jones, The Last Defense, highlighted another man, Christopher Jordan, and his role in Howell’s murder.

Jordan was convicted as an accessory to murder for driving a getaway car. However, there are several off-putting findings that suggest he may have been much more than an accessory, such as the fact that he fit the eyewitness’ aforementioned hair description. 

As the prosecution’s star witness, Jordan testified that he had been at the scene of the murder and had seen Jones kill Howell. However, according to the Oklahoma City Sentinel, Jordan’s cellmate Roderick Wesley provided a statement claiming that Jordan had confessed multiple times to framing a man for a murder he had allegedly committed. His statement came in 2020 via a letter to Jones’ defense team after he’d seen The Last Defense on TV and recognized Jordan. In this letter, Wesley wrote that Jordan had told him “my co-defendant is on death row behind a murder I committed.”

It’s important to note that Wesley, along with two other incarcerated prisoners who separately reported hearing similar confessions from Jordan, did not know Jones personally and were not offered any incentives in exchange for disclosing possible evidence against Jordan.  

Those who believe that Jones is guilty despite Jordan’s alleged confessions stress that the murder weapon, with a red bandana tied around it, was found in Jones’ family home. However, according to the Washington Post and Jones’ lawyers, Jordan allegedly convened with Jones following the night of the murder to secretly plant the weapon in his home. Allegedly, Jordan had reached out to Jones after locking himself out of his grandmother’s house and, when Jones kindly brought Jordan back to his home, Jordan snuck upstairs to ditch the murder weapon in Jones’ bedroom. The next morning, Jordan quietly fled the house and left his friend to take the fall. This claim seems to support the alleged confessions Jordan made to those he was incarcerated with.

Today, having been given a plea deal for his testimony against Jones, Jordan is a free man while Jones’ fate rests with the decision of one man.

Hopefully Governor Kevin Stitt will act mercifully and reduce Jones’ sentence. While the death of Paul Howell is tragic and his family’s desire for justice is certainly understandable, justice by means of the death penalty is dangerously flawed. There are too many holes in Julius Jones’ conviction to have confidence in his guilt, which means sentencing him to death risks executing an innocent man. A risk as great as life or death must be avoided, for a mistake resulting in a wrongful execution can never be fixed.