Lawyer: Court must bar duo from deciding on death row case

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma’s Pardon and Parole Board will likely recommend that a high-profile inmate’s death sentence be commuted unless two board members are barred from taking part in the decision, a lawyer for a county district attorney argued before a state Supreme Court referee Friday.

Attorney Sandra Howell-Elliott, a part-time assistant district attorney who is representing Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, urged the state’s high court to prohibit board members Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle from considering Julius Jones’ commutation at a hearing next week. Prater maintains that Luck and Doyle, who were appointees of Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, are biased against prosecutors because of the nonprofit work they do with released inmates and their support for criminal justice reform.

“Nobody in this room, I suspect, has any doubt that this board will vote to commute Julius Jones’ sentence, and I think that is part of the problem,” Howell-Elliott, who was one of the prosecutors who helped convict Jones in 2002, told state Supreme Court Referee Ann Hadrava.

Michael Lieberman, an attorney for Jones, pushed back on that assertion, which he called “absolute nonsense.”

“We are working around the clock on this case,” Lieberman said. “If we knew what the board was going to do, I would be getting a lot more sleep.”

The five-member board is expected to consider whether to recommend commuting Jones’ death sentence at a hearing on Monday. It could recommend downgrading his sentence to life with or without the possibility of parole, but the governor would make the final decision.

Hadrava, the referee, will present a report to the nine-member state Supreme Court, which ultimately will decide whether to intervene and prevent Luck and Doyle from considering Jones’ commutation request.

Jones, now 41, was convicted in the 1999 shooting death of Edmond businessman Paul Howell. He has maintained his innocence since his arrest, and his case drew widespread attention after it was profiled in “The Last Defense,” a three-episode documentary produced by actress Viola Davis that aired on ABC in 2018. Since then, it has drawn the attention of reality television star Kim Kardashian West and athletes with Oklahoma ties, including NBA stars Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Trae Young, who have urged Stitt to commute Jones’ death sentence and spare his life.

Jones has maintained his innocence and alleges he was framed by the actual killer, a high school friend and former co-defendant who was a key state witness against him. Prater and the state’s former attorney general, Mike Hunter, have said the evidence against Jones is overwhelming. Information from trial transcripts shows that witnesses identified Jones as the shooter and placed him with Howell’s stolen vehicle. Investigators found the murder weapon and a bandana with Jones’ DNA in an attic space above his bedroom, but Jones claims in his commutation filing that the gun and bandana were planted there by the actual killer.

Jones also maintains his trial was contaminated by a racist juror, but Hunter has noted that the trial court and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals found otherwise.

In a statement, Prater said the Howell family deserves a fair and impartial hearing before the board.

“It is patently unfair to the Howell family and the citizens of Oklahoma to allow Adam Luck and Kelly Doyle to serve on this very important board,” Prater said. “They clearly are not and cannot be objective in their evaluation of matters coming before them for consideration.”