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On Death Row Half His Life, Oklahoma Man May Be a Step Closer to Release

A man on death row in Oklahoma could be one step closer to being released from prison after the state’s pardon and parole board recommended this week that his sentence be commuted, sending the case to the governor’s desk.

The man, Julius Jones, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2002. He was accused of killing Paul Howell, who was in a car in the driveway of his parents’ home when he was carjacked and fatally shot in 1999.

Mr. Jones, 41, a former high school basketball player from Oklahoma City, was 19 at the time of the killing, which he says he did not commit. Mr. Howell, a businessman from the suburb of Edmond, was 45.

The parole board’s recommendation — to commute Mr. Jones’s death sentence to life in prison, with the possibility of parole — is a significant step in a case that has captured attention across the United States, prompting public demonstrations, celebrity advocacy and debates over capital punishment in a state where officials had to temporarily halt executions after a string of botched procedures.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, could still deny the parole board’s recommendation to commute Mr. Jones’s sentence. If he approves it, Mr. Jones would become eligible for parole.

“I’m grateful to the pardon and parole board for seeing the human in my brother Julius Darius Jones,” his sister, Antoinette Jones, said at a rally after the board announced its decision on Monday.

Mr. Jones, a Black man who has now spent about half of his life in prison, has long maintained his innocence. “I did not kill Mr. Howell,” he wrote in a letter to the parole board in April, after he had exhausted his appeals. “I did not participate in any way in his murder; and the first time I saw him was on television when his death was reported.”

But relatives of Mr. Howell, a white man whose sister and two daughters witnessed his killing, have pushed back against those claims and said that the continuing efforts to exonerate Mr. Jones have caused them pain.

“We are devastated by the decision reached today by the pardon and parole board,” his brother Brian Howell said at a news conference on Monday. “Our family continues to be victimized by Julius Jones and his lies.”

Mr. Jones and his supporters have argued that his defense lawyers failed him during his trial — for instance, by neglecting to question family members who have said that he was having dinner with them at the time of Mr. Howell’s killing — and that prosecutors relied too much on the testimony of Christopher Jordan, a co-defendant who said that he had seen Mr. Jones commit the crime.

Mr. Jordan, who was also convicted of murdering Mr. Howell but served a reduced sentence and was released in 2014, could not be reached for comment this week. People who were incarcerated alongside Mr. Jordan have said that he confessed to framing Mr. Jones.

Mr. Jones’s supporters have also argued that racism played a role in his trial and sentencing. African Americans make up a disproportionate number of death row prisoners in Oklahoma and in the United States, and research has shown that people convicted of murder are much more likely to be executed if the person who was killed was white.

Mr. Howell’s family and David Prater, the district attorney for Oklahoma County, who opposes the commutation of Mr. Jones’s sentence, have argued that Mr. Jones is guilty, citing Mr. Howell’s relatives who witnessed the murder and a DNA test that linked Mr. Jones to a red bandanna that was found wrapped around the murder weapon.

The police found the gun and the bandanna in Mr. Jones’s family’s home. Mr. Jones’s lawyers have said that Mr. Jordan, who visited the home after the killing, could have planted the weapon there.

In recent years, Mr. Jones’s case has been a focus of several high-profile media projects — including a 2018 documentary series produced by Viola Davis, a podcast episode last year featuring Kim Kardashian West and a recent episode of The Late Late Show with James Corden — as well as several public demonstrations.

That attention has become a point of contention for members of Mr. Howell’s family, who have said that their grief has been ignored.

At a news conference after the vote on Monday, Mr. Prater said that the pardon and parole board members were biased against the death penalty or had links to campaigns in support of Mr. Jones, including one member who recused himself from the panel shortly before the vote.

“Justice has been subverted by celebrity, money and politics,” Mr. Prater added.

Brian Howell said that Mr. Jones had advocates outside Oklahoma, pointing to a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that has supported the campaign to free him. “We don’t have a Represent Justice, which is a California 510c(3), on our side,” he said. “But we do have the truth.”

Daniel Forkkio, the chief executive of Represent Justice, said in an emailed statement that the organization had helped to amplify the work of the Jones family and others who had petitioned state officials on behalf of Mr. Jones.

“The Oklahoma County district attorney’s office has waged a very intense and public campaign to execute Julius Jones for over 20 years, funded by taxpayers,” he added, “including many taxpayers who do not believe Julius got a fair trial and who think the state is seeking to execute an innocent man.”

Cece Jones-Davis, who directs an Oklahoma-based campaign called Justice for Julius Jones, said that many people from Mr. Jones’s community had been fighting his execution, and that the news media attention had increased those efforts. On Monday, she was outside the parole board hearing in Oklahoma City with a crowd of demonstrators, awaiting the result.

“When the vote came through, it was very surreal,” she said. “I had a ringing in my ears. I couldn’t even believe what was happening.”

It was telling, she added, that so much outside attention was needed to push the case onto the governor’s desk.

“It really is a shame to me that it has taken millions of people, literally, to save one Black man’s life in America,” she said. “It is a shame to me that a whole entire state can bury a man alive for 22 years, lock the door and throw away the key while he waits to be executed.”

Ms. Jones-Davis said that the fight against his execution was not over, since the board’s recommendation had not been approved by the governor. Mr. Stitt has no time limit to make a decision on Mr. Jones’s case.

“The governor takes his role in this process seriously and will carefully consider the pardon and parole board’s recommendation as he does in all cases,” a spokesman for the governor said in an email. “We will not have any further comment until the governor has made a decision.”

Susan Beachy contributed research.

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