OKLAHOMA CITY – High-profile inmate Julius Jones had another chance to get off death row Monday after claiming his innocence before the Oklahoma Pardons and Parole Board.
Jones, 41, is at risk of execution for the fatal 1999 shooting of insurance executive Paul Howell in a carjacking on the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond. Jurors chose the death penalty as a punishment during a 2002 trial.
Its execution date is set for November 18.
“First of all, I feel sorry for the Howell family, for the tragic loss of Mr. Paul Howell, whom I have heard is a good, caring and versatile person,” Jones said via video conference. “Second, I am not the person responsible for taking Mr. Howell’s life.”
The board voted 3-1 for Jones’ leniency. Commission members recommended that his sentence be reduced to life with the possibility of parole. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt will have the final say on Jones’ future.
“Governor Stitt is aware of the Pardons and Parole Board vote today,” Stitt spokeswoman Carly Atchison said in a statement. “Our office will not offer further comments until the governor makes a final decision.”
Stitt’s predecessor, Republican Governor Mary Fallin, rejected three separate recommendations for pardons for those on death row. The last time a governor granted clemency to a death row inmate was in 2010, by Democrat Brad Henry.
Jones, who was 19 at the time of his arrest, claims he is innocent and was set up by the killer. Her case has attracted the support of celebrities and renowned athletes.
Related:Oklahoma parole board recommends commutation of Julius Jones’ death sentence
Following:Oklahoma gives first lethal injection since 2015, executing inmate for murder of prison worker
Millions of people have signed a petition in favor of Jones after ABC in 2018 aired the documentary series “The Last Defense”, about his claim of innocence. His supporters include celebrity Kim Kardashian, who visited him last year at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
If clemency was granted, Jones would be eligible for parole immediately due to the prison sentence he has already served. Amanda C. Bass, deputy federal public defender representing Jones, told the board that Jones “faces execution in two weeks for a crime he did not commit.”
Bass blamed Jones’ conviction and death sentence on systemic racism, underfunded and inexperienced public advocates and prosecutorial misconduct.
Jones did not fit the description of an eyewitness and was at home when the murder took place, Bass told the board.
Jones was 19 at the time of his arrest. He claims he is innocent and has been tricked by the real killer.
Sitting next to his lawyer on Monday at a table in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, Jones was dressed in a dark red prison uniform as he read a prepared statement.
“I was not involved in the planning of this flight, I was not present on this flight and I did not know anyone had been killed until the day after Mr Howell was murdered,” Jones said .
In October, a state investigator told the Pardons and Parole Board that Jones had used his notoriety for financial gain through commercial calls from the prison over marketing and branding concepts, reported the investigator in an affidavit.
Jones said he was at home with his parents and siblings the night Howell was killed, but prosecutors said Jones himself had previously told his lawyers that was not true.
“Jones has repeatedly and unequivocally told his lawyers that his parents were wrong and that he was not home the night of the murder,” Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Crabb said.
Jones was directly involved at trial in the fatal shooting of his friend Christopher Jordan. Under a plea deal, Jordan pleaded guilty to first degree murder and conspiracy to commit robbery for his role and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Jones claims Jordan is the real killer and boxed him in to get a deal.
Trial transcripts show witnesses identified Jones as the gunman and placed him with Howell’s stolen vehicle. Investigators also found the murder weapon and a bandana with Jones’ DNA in an attic above his bedroom. Jones said in his switch file that the gun and bandana were planted there by the real killer.
But Bass, said his criminal trial was corrupted by the use of unwanted forensic science, prison informants and a plea deal for the co-accused who testified against him.
“In this way and more, the criminal justice system has failed Mr. Howell,” Bass said. “It also failed Julius by sentencing him to death for something he didn’t do.”
Paul Howell’s sister, Megan Tobey, testified before the board that she distinctly remembers seeing Jones shoot her brother in front of his two young daughters.
“He’s the same person today as he was 22 years ago. He’s still in trouble. He’s still in a gang. He’s still lying. And he still doesn’t feel any shame, guilt or remorse for his action, ”Tobey said. “We need Julius Jones to be held accountable.”
USA TODAY Network:From murder charge to requests to commute his execution, a timeline of the Julius Jones case
Julius Jones case:Oklahoma AG accuses two parole board members of bias, wants them removed from pardon hearing
The board vote on Monday came less than a week after the state executed its first prisoner in more than six years. Convicted murderer John Marion Grant, 60, was executed by lethal injection Thursday inside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
Grant was serving a sentence in 1998 for armed robbery when he fatally stabbed Gay Carter, 58, with a sharp screwdriver repeatedly in a kitchen at the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy.
The United States Supreme Court authorized his execution after Grant and Jones were initially suspended the day before by the 10th United States Court of Appeals in Denver. The High Court’s 5-3 decision has potentially paved the way for several executions in the coming months.
Before Grant was put to death, the last scheduled execution in Oklahoma was September 30, 2015. Authorities halted that execution after a doctor discovered that the deadly wrong drug – potassium acetate – had been provided. Officials later said the same mistake was made during an execution in January of the same year.
Contribution: The Associated Press