Oklahoma Is Trying to Make It Nearly Impossible to Get Off Death Row

Many critics of a new bill claim it’s a direct retaliation to Julius Jones’ life being spared last November.
Gabrielle Caplan
Brooklyn, US
oklahoma-death-row-bill-commutation
This photo provided by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections on Feb. 5, 2018, shows Julius Jones. (Oklahoma Department of Corrections via AP, File)

Update 3/2 12:48 pm ET: On Wednesday, the Oklahoma Judiciary Committee passed the bill, which now goes to the House floor for a full vote.

“At a time when we are literally arguing whether the way we kill people in this state is even constitutional, we wanna take away the only mercy they have left. I am a lawyer and I can say with 100% certainty our system is flawed. It is far from perfect. They get things wrong,” said stae Democrat Rep. Jason Lowe, who sits on the judiciary committee and voted against the measure.

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To get off death row in Oklahoma, if the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature gets its way, inmates would have to admit to their crimes. The pardon and parole board simply couldn’t grant clemency to anyone who maintains their innocence. 

A new bill, authored by Republican Rep. John Pfeiffer, would require that clemency be granted only on the basis of “mercy” or “leniency,” which requires guilt. And to even have that chance, inmates would have to wait to bring their cases before the parole board until they have an “imminent” execution date—which can take years, even decades. (Oklahoma just ended a six-year moratorium on executions at the end of last year, with the execution of John Grant, who convulsed and vomited before he died by lethal injection.)

The “Pardon and Parole Board Reform Act of 22” would also limit the governor’s power: He couldn’t exonerate anyone—only change death sentences to life without the possibility of parole. 

Many critics of the bill have claimed it’s a direct retaliation to Julius Jones’ life being spared last November. Jones was sentenced to die for the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell, but just hours before his execution, Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

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Throughout his 19 years on death row, Jones maintained his innocence and offered substantial evidence that he was wrongfully convicted, such as the fact that he didn’t fit the only eye witness description. Citing doubts about his guilt, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board also voted twice to recommend Jones’ sentence be commuted.

“In 2021, Julius Jones was the first death row inmate in state history to be allowed a commutation hearing, less than one year later, there is legislation making its way through the Oklahoma State Legislature to prevent this from happening again” Angela Clark Little, legislative liaison for the Julius Jones Coalition, told VICE News. 

The new proposal may also violate the Oklahoma Constitution, “which empowers the board of pardons to recommend clemency for any reason ‘deemed worthy’ and innocence is certainly such a reason,” according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit seeking to create transparency and present facts with regards to capital punishment in the U.S.

Oklahoma leads the country in executions per capita and has handed down the second-most death sentences of any state. Oklahoma County also ranks third in the U.S. for total executions and fourth in death row exonerations: Ten men sentenced to death in the state have had their sentences overturned.

Until he retired in 2001, Bob Macy, nicknamed “‘Cowboy Bob,” also worked as Oklahoma County’s district attorney. He’s ranked as the second deadliest prosecutor in U.S. history and wore that title as a badge of honor; he kept trading cards with a photo of himself on horseback on the front and his death penalty statistics on the back. Macy was found to have committed misconduct in about one-third of the death sentences he won.

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“HB 3903 proposes to remove from the criminal justice system any possibility that someone might later be found innocent,” Clark Little said. “This is egregious when nearly half of former Oklahoma County DA Bob Macy’s capital convictions have been overturned.”

The competency of Oklahoma to carry out executions using their lethal injection protocol is currently under fire in federal court. The suit was posed against the state on the premise of several botched executions where the inmate clearly suffered pain in a lengthy execution, resulting in accusations that the practice was “cruel and unusual” in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

With the suit still pending in federal court, Oklahoma went ahead with four other executions. Those inmates were left off the federal lawsuit because they’d failed to choose alternative modes of execution, such as firing squad. 

“The mistakes and misconduct at every stage of Oklahoma’s capital cases are so pervasive, you have to ask, can you trust Oklahoma with the death penalty?” Dunham said.

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