Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway.
Parole Board Member: Again, personally I believe that in death penalty cases, there should be no doubt, and put simply I have doubts about this case. I cannot ignore those doubts especially when the stakes are life and death. For this reason, I voted yes and I recommend community sentence to life with the possibility of parole.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening here to the words of one member of the Oklahoma Parole and Pardons Board. On Monday, the board held a commutation hearing in the case of Julius Jones. 3 of the 4 board members recommended commuting Jones's death sentence into life with the possibility of parole. The recommendation is advanced to the Oklahoma Governor, Kevin Stitt, who will make the final decision.
Now, Jones was convicted in the 1999 killing of an Edmonton Oklahoma businessman, but Jones has maintained his innocence throughout more than 20 years of incarceration. The legal effort and social movement to commute Jones's sentence points to inadequate counsel, inconsistent descriptions of the gunman, and a record of bias by the lead prosecutor as being among the deep problems with this conviction.
Daniel Forkkio is the Chief Executive Officer of Represent Justice, an organization that aims to engage audiences in re-imagining the justice system and create demand for change. His organization has been involved in the fight to free Julius Jones. I asked him to remind us of the key facts of the case.
Daniel Forkkio: Julius Jones is an Oklahoma and a Black man who was convicted for the murder of Paul Howell who was an affluent white businessman in 1999. Julius Jones was then sentenced as part of that conviction to die in the State of Oklahoma.
Julius Jones had exhausted all of his appeals, and yet, in reviewing the case for Julius, we found ineffective counsel, inconsistent statements made by his co-defendants, and just a complete preponderance of evidence that Julius had not received adequate counsel and had not actually committed the crime and so that case which happened now 22 years ago is now on its final or has been on its final defense, which is the commutation process through the Pardon and Parole Board.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What happened yesterday in this commutation hearing?
Daniel Forkkio: In the commutation hearing we heard from the victim's family, we heard from the state's attorney, and we heard from Julius counsel. Each party was given between 20 to 30 minutes to make their case. The victim's family really talked about just the incredible pain and loss and my heart breaks for that family and for what they've been through over these past 22 years.
That pain is real and is absolutely valid. Then we heard from the state's attorney's office, essentially doubling down on their conviction and their practices from 20 years ago, and really just an overall demeaning of Julius' character. At one point the state's attorney said, "Well, look at this photo of him while he's currently incarcerated. Look at his tattoos, you can tell he's in a gang. You can tell that he's violent. You can tell that he's a continued threat."
I found that that is the exact same bias that really convicted him in the first place. They didn't actually get into the merits of their case at all, they rather got into what they felt Julius as a person was and had some very demeaning things to say.
Then third and finally we heard from Julius' attorneys. They talked about evidence that was not presented, which included the inconsistency with the witness description of Julius Jones. Julius had short hair. They mentioned a skull cap with a half-inch of hair extending out from under it. that was never interrogated by the Julius attorney at the time as well as many, many other things that were not interrogated by Julius' attorney.
What we witnessed is Julius' story finally being able to be told and to be told completely, thoughtfully by people who were really dedicated and ethical. I think that was just incredibly powerful. We also heard from people who've met Julius recently and who speak to just his character and his desire to want to go out in the world and do good which was equally compelling and important.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We did not hear from Julius himself, is there a reason for that?
Daniel Forkkio: Yes. Unfortunately, one of the rules in these commutation hearings is that if you are housed in a supermax, you're unable to attend in person. I have to say to that point, Melissa, there's a lot of rules that have come to light in this process from the time that's allotted for these types of applications, to things like not being able to tell your own story and having to have other people tell your story on your behalf, or talk about you as the third party that really needs to change.
I think that that's important, deep work that Oklahoma still has left, which is to really make sure, just imagine for a moment in a state that has already exonerated over 10 people from death row, that people in their commutation applications receive as little as 30 seconds, 45 seconds. Many of the Pardon and Parole Board members remarked today that they had never really heard much about Julius until this very day 30 days from potentially an execution date. I think that's also incredibly important.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Will Julius be executed in the next 30 days?
Daniel Forkkio: No. Thankfully, yesterday's hearing culminated in 3 of the 4 Pardon and Parole Board members making a recommendation for life with the possibility of parole. That creates an important relief measure for the governor to now accept. The governor has to accept the recommendation that happened yesterday.
We feel very confident that the governor has confidence in his Pardon and Parole Board, and will accept that recommendation upon which Julius' sentence will be converted to life with parole, which means he'll be eligible for future parole hearings and have an opportunity for potential freedom in the future. We're very grateful for that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For those of us who are following the case, what should we be looking for next? What are the next big steps in this process?
Daniel Forkkio: The focus really now is on the governor accepting this recommendation. I think this vote will become final upon the end of the Pardon and Parole Board session on Wednesday. At that point, it will go to the governor for acceptance. I think it's very, very important that the public lets the governor know that they are in favor and in support of this recommendation.
If the recommendation is declined or rejected by the governor, then Julius' sentence would be upheld, which would be an incredible tragedy. Yes, I think letting the governor know that the time is now to accept this recommendation and Julius has waited far too long for an opportunity of freedom.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Daniel Forkkio, Chief Executive Officer of Represent Justice. I know it's not a total win, but I'm sure this is still a little bit easier breathing today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Daniel Forkkio: Thank you so much, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You can learn more about how to follow Julius Jones' case over at thetakeaway.org.
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