Supporters of Julius Jones say they will continue to fight to exonerate him even after Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted his death sentence to life without parole. Questions persist about Jones’ guilt or innocence in the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell and whether he received a fair trial. Stitt’s executive order prohibits Jones from seeking further clemency, pardon, or parole, but some observers have said that a future governor could reverse the order or Jones could seek relief in court.
Myths and misconceptions have persisted as Jones’ case continues to draw intense media scrutiny and a groundswell of support from activists and celebrities. Many facts of the case are complex and nuanced and others remain unknown. Some of the public debate has centered around things like Jones’ college academic record and reports of alleged gang activity, although neither is proof of guilt or innocence. The Frontier fact-checked some claims about Jones’ case using court documents and other records, as well as information provided by Jones’ attorneys and the Howell family.
Claim: Jones had a history of prior violent criminal offenses before the murder of Paul Howell.
Source: Prosecutors, including former Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, have repeatedly made this claim.
“He had a history of armed robbery, numerous carjackings, and assault,” Hunter wrote in a 2020 column for The Frontier. “Evidence presented at trial showed on at least three occasions Jones had stolen property by force at gunpoint, among many other crimes.”
Fact check: Mostly true
Prosecutors presented evidence at Jones’ trial they said showed he had a violent past.
Court records show Jones had been charged with multiple crimes prior to his arrest for murder, including theft and selling stolen property to a pawn shop.
Jones’ attorneys say it is misleading to characterize Jones as having a violent history since he was never convicted of a violent crime prior to his arrest for the murder of Paul Howell.
But prosecutors charged Jones with robbery with a firearm in September 1999 (after he had been charged with Howell’s murder) for a carjacking he had allegedly committed prior to Howell’s slaying outside an Oklahoma City pizza restaurant. Oklahoma City Police alleged Jones pointed a gun at a man in a new Mercedes and demanded the keys to the vehicle. The man was not physically injured in the encounter.
The case moved slowly through the courts and Jones eventually pleaded guilty to the crime in 2006. Amanda Bass, who represented Jones in his death row case, told The Frontier that fingerprint analysis excluded Jones as a suspect in the carjacking.
Jones pleaded guilty in exchange for a 12-year prison sentence, Bass said. This let him avoid the possibility of a life sentence, which would have precluded him from leaving prison had his death sentence ever been overturned.
-Ben Felder and Dylan Goforth
Claim: A juror claimed another juror used the n-word to refer to Jones during his trial.
Source: Jones’ attorneys have made this claim in court.
Fact check: True
In 2018, Jones’ attorneys made contact with a juror from his 2002 trial who said she informed the judge that another juror had used the n-word.
“During the trial, I was the juror who went to the judge with the comment from another juror about how it was all a waste of time and ‘they should just take the n***** out and shoot him behind the jail’ although that juror was never removed and nothing further came from it,” according to screenshots of a conversation between the juror and Jones’ attorney.
Jones’ attorneys presented the screenshots to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing they showed the juror harbored racial animus toward Jones. But the high court declined to hear Jones’ appeal without comment.
Claim: Jones was an honor student at the University of Oklahoma at the time of the murder.
Fact check: Mostly false
Jones did not receive honors from the University of Oklahoma while he was a student there, though he was an honor student while at John Marshall High School and received an academic scholarship to attend OU.
“While he was an outstanding student and athlete at John Marshall High School, and received the Presidential Leadership Scholarship, graduating 11th in his class with a 3.68 GPA, we have acknowledged that he, like many young people, struggled during his first year in college,” Jones’ lawyers said in a statement to The Frontier.
Claim: DNA from a red bandana police found with the murder weapon at Jones’ house matched Jones.
Fact check: Mixed
Police found the gun used to kill Howell in the attic of Jones’ parents’ house, wrapped in a red bandana. Howell’s family has testified the killer wore a red bandana. Jones claims Christopher Jordan, who testified against Jones and admitted to being an accomplice in the Howell slaying, placed the gun there.
At the request of Jones’ legal team, the bandana was tested for DNA in 2018.
While the results showed a close match to Jones, they don’t meet the requirements of the FBI to be labeled an official DNA match. Jones’ attorneys have said the DNA evidence does appear to belong to Jones but have called the results inconclusive.
The 2018 testing found there is one chance in 110 million that the DNA on the bandana does not match Jones. No blood or other biological material was found on the bandana and Jones’ attorneys say that because the bandana was at his house, the DNA does not prove he wore it the night of Howell’s murder.
DNA samples belonging to three or more other people were also found on the bandana. But the samples are so degraded that they cannot be fully compared to other DNA profiles, meaning they can’t be linked to anyone else.
Christopher Jordan received a lesser sentence for testifying against Jones at trial
Source: Julius Jones’ attorneys
Fact check: True
Jordan pleaded guilty to Howell’s murder in exchange for a life sentence with all but the first 30 years suspended. He testified at trial that he was Jones’ accomplice in the Howell killing. Jordan told authorities he waited in the getaway car while Jones approached Howell’s SUV, shot Howell, then drove away. Jordan claimed Jones told him the handgun went off accidentally when he approached Howell.
Jones’ attorneys and supporters have pointed to Jordan’s lesser sentence as proof that Jordan had an incentive to point the finger at Jones.
Jordan was released from prison in 2014 after serving about 15 years, but remains on probation, prison records show.
Howell’s murder happened before Oklahoma instituted 85 percent sentencing laws, which require people convicted of certain crimes to serve 85 percent of their sentence in prison before eligibility for parole. So Jordan was able to quickly earn credits toward early release. At Jones’ clemency hearing in November, Pardon and Parole Board members were told that Jordan earned an additional 33-44 credit days per month for much of his time in prison.
Another inmate claims Jordan admitted in prison to killing Howell and framing Jones for the crime
Source: Julius Jones’ attorneys
Fact check: True
The Frontier previously published an account from an inmate in Arkansas named Roderick Wesley, who said he played basketball and became acquainted with Jordan in prison. Jordan served his prison sentence outside of Oklahoma since he had testified against an accomplice.
Wesley told Jones’ attorneys that Jordan had admitted to killing Howell, but did not want to receive the death penalty, so he had pointed the finger at Jones. Wesley said he did not know anything about the case or give Jordan’s alleged claim much thought until he saw an ABC documentary about Jones’ case one night from his prison pod.
Jones’ attorneys have also said that another man, Jordan’s former cellmate Emmanuel Littlejohn, said Jordan told him that Jones was not present for Howell’s killing. Littlejohn stated in an affidavit that Jordan told him the state was going to “cut him a deal” and let him out in 15 years if he would testify against Jones. Littlejohn stated in the affidavit that Jordan told him he “felt bad” about testifying against Jones, but did so to avoid the death penalty himself.
The state has argued that Wesley is a habitual liar and that Littlejohn, who is currently also on death row, is not trustworthy.
Claim: Jones is a gang member.
Fact check: Mixed
The Howell family points to an August 2021 affidavit from an Oklahoma City Police Department Gang Intelligence Unit officer as evidence of Jones’ gang involvement. The officer attested that various gang-related tattoos on Jones’ body, as well as letters Jones wrote from jail in 1999 and 2000 are evidence that Jones is a member of the 456 Piru Blood street gang.
A member of the Howell family also provided The Frontier with documentation of a tip the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office received about Jones’ alleged gang involvement in prison.
Jones’ attorneys maintain he was not involved in a gang when he was arrested in 1999 and has never engaged in any gang-related activity.
“Julius associated with the gang only after he was assaulted in the county jail and needed protection. Despite getting the tattoo and being ‘associated,’ he has never engaged in any gang-related activity either before being arrested or since,” Bass said in an email.
Jones’ trial lawyer objected to any gang references at his 2002 trial “based on there being no evidence whatsoever that Julius was ever involved in a gang,” and Jones only had one tattoo of his nickname “J-dog” when he was booked into the jail in 1999, according to his booking sheet, Bass said.
Jones’ defense team provided The Frontier with an affidavit from corrections expert Clinton Johnson that states Jones has no history of violent behavior in prison. He has been written up for possessing contraband cell phones in prison, but there is no evidence he used the phones for gang-related activity, Johnson wrote.
“It is not uncommon for people who enter prison for the first time to quickly learn that they need to clique-up, or affiliate with a group, for protection and to avoid being preyed on,” Johnson wrote.
“That is the reality that Julius has had to endure in prison as well,” Bass said.
True: A claim that is backed up by factual evidence
Mostly True: A claim that is mostly true but also contains some inaccurate details
Mixed: A claim that contains a combination of accurate and inaccurate or unproven information
True but misleading: A claim that is factually true but omits critical details or context
Mostly False: A claim that is mostly false but also contains some accurate details
False: A claim that has no basis in fact