An Open Letter to the Governor of Oklahoma | Sojourners

An Open Letter to the Governor of Oklahoma

People pray during a prayer service in support of clemency for Julius Jones on Nov. 6, at the Oklahoma state capitol. Photo: USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect

Dear Gov. Kevin Stitt,

I am troubled about Oklahoma’s recent decision to reinstate the death penalty and to resume state executions. I know you are a Christian, governor. As a Christian minister myself, I believe that capital punishment should end.

But I am not writing to you today to debate policy; the occasion for my letter is much more urgent: The decision to kill Julius Jones or to spare his life rests in your hands.

As I write to you, Jones has been remanded to solitary confinement and has been placed on death watch. He has lived on death row for over 20 years since the age of 19; in seven days, Jones is scheduled to be executed for the murder of Paul Howell, a crime Jones has always said he did not commit and for which there is compelling evidence Jones was wrongfully convicted.

First, Jones has an alibi: He and his family — his parents, his sister, and his brother — all were prepared to testify that Julius was not at the crime scene because they were together at the time of the incident. But the jury was never given the opportunity to hear this.

Second, an eyewitness provided a description of the shooter, but Jones did not fit that description; Christopher Jordan, an associate of Jones’ and a codefendant in the trial, did. The night of the incident Jordan stayed over at Jones’ home after claiming to be locked out of his grandmother’s house; the room where Jordan slept was where evidence was found. Jordan later pled guilty for aiding in the crime and agreed to be the state’s key witness against Jones; Jordan served 15 years in prison before he was released. A fellow inmate said Jordan confessed to killing Paul Howell and framing Jones; Jordan’s attorney says Jordan denies this.

Also, Jones never received a fair trial. His defense attorneys had never argued a death penalty trial case before. When the opportunity was extended for them to present evidence, rather than do so, they immediately rested their case and offered nothing in Jones’ defense. In a video released today, Robin Bruno, one of the original defense lawyers assigned to Jones’ case, said she signed a 2004 affidavit noting the deficiencies of their defense and their lack of preparation to defend someone facing the death penalty. In the video, Bruno reaffirmed her belief that Jones deserved better legal representation and asked your office, Gov. Stitt, to commute Jones’ sentence.

Perhaps most troubling is the jury that was trusted to determine Jones’ guilt: Though a jury is supposed to be an impartial group of peers, one of the original jurors on the case described the brazen racial bias of the jury in a 2018 episode of the ABC documentary series The Last Defense:

“I was a juror on the case… and this thing has weighed on me for a long time. What happened was, several of us from the jury were getting on an elevator. This was well before deliberations. And one of the jurors said, ‘Well, they should just take that n----- out back, shoot him and bury him under the jail. It didn’t matter what happened, this was a Black man that was on trial for murder. He did it.’”

As law professor David Baldus and statistics professor George Woodworth wrote in their 1998 analysis, “the use of derogatory slurs [in death penalty cases] kindles the flames of prejudice and allows the jury to judge harshly those they wish to scapegoat for the problem of crime.”

Racism tainted this case: Jones’ defense was never heard and a jury compromised by bias determined his fate.

Thankfully, in September, the Oklahoma pardon and parole board acknowledged the many problems in this case and recommended that Julius sentence be commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Today I am asking you to accept this recommendation and grant Julius clemency.

There are simply too many reasons to doubt the conclusions that serve as the impetus for taking Julius Jones’ life. Any fair-minded analysis would conclude that this does not rise to the legal standard required for taking a life: “guilt beyond reasonable doubt.”

The murder 20 years ago was horrific and tragic, and the Howell family can never be made whole, but for the state to take the life of an innocent man would be just as horrific and tragic. It would not be justice.

Scripture is critical of those who passively accept what should be dealt with, including leaders who “turn aside the needy from justice” (Isaiah 10:2) and make decisions based upon willful ignorance (Hosea 4:6). Passive acceptance and silence has allowed some of the worst atrocities in our history. I am writing to you today to ask you to break your silence and to step in to grant Jones clemency and to be an agent of justice in the story of this man who has been wronged by the justice system.

While I am writing to you today specifically about Julius Jones, I cannot continue any further without acknowledging the broader problems with the death penalty and the justice system as a whole — problems which disproportionately impact people who are poor and people of color.

After a six-year moratorium on capital punishment in your state, I was devastated to hear the news of that Oklahoma would resume executions, including John Grant executed on Oct. 28, and six other men who have been given execution dates. The stories of botched executions, executions where the wrong drug was administered and the process was unnecessarily extended, and stories of eyewitnesses that liken these experiences to watching people being burned alive are horrifying.

According to Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that advocates for equal treatment in the criminal justice system, in the United States the “death penalty system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” As EJI has documented, defense attorneys representing poor defendants often lack the resources needed to thoroughly investigate the case, thus those sentenced to death are largely those who could not afford to hire adequate counsel. This system is especially unfair for people of color, particularly Black people, who EJI has shown face a presumption of guilt due to unconscious biases linking Blackness and criminality.

Finally, governor, allow me to share why this matter is critically important to me as a Christian.

My faith is grounded in the conviction that God is a righteous judge who loves justice and makes decisions without partiality or error. However, I believe that is a standard we human beings are often unable to live up to. Justice in the Christian tradition is not retributive, but rather is concerned with making things right. In the Bible, this kind of rightness in relationships is described as shalom, which is understood as peace and wholeness. As people of faith, we are continuously summoned to pursue this peace and this wholeness with each other and with God.

Executing Julius Jones will not bring peace. It will not restore. It will not bring wholeness and it is not justice.

I have served congregations in communities that have been deeply harmed by the justice system. These harms have devastated families and hindered people’s ability to thrive and to flourish. My hope is that you will consider the significant decision that now rests with you, and you will intervene with a grace that restores. My hope is that you will grant Julius Jones clemency and freedom.

In faith,

Rev. Terrance M. McKinley

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