With Julius Jones’ Nov. 18 execution date creeping closer, an unlikely group has come to the forefront to vocally advocate for his clemency: pro-death penalty Republicans.

Jones’ life ultimately rests solely in the hands of Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has yet to decide if he will block the execution.

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board on Nov. 1 recommended Stitt grant Jones clemency, but the likes of Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater and former state Attorney General Mike Hunter have alleged the evidence against Jones is overwhelming.

In 2002, Jones, a former OU engineering freshman, was convicted of the 1999 murder of Edmond businessman Paul Howell and sentenced to death. He has maintained his innocence since his conviction.

Jones has always had the support of anti-death penalty advocates such as Black Lives Matter Oklahoma City, the NAACP and celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and Stephen Curry — all of whom are unlikely to have much sway on the first-term Republican governor.

But recently, Republicans — both local and national — have come to Jones’ support.

Statistically, Republicans overwhelmingly support the death penalty, according to PEW Research Center.

In a poll released in June of this year, 77% of people who identify as Republican or lean to the right supported the death penalty, compared to only 46% of Democrats.

“When people who typically are pro-death penalty and would not consider taking a look at the case, when they actually did take a look at the facts of the case and the circumstances of the conviction, it’s very troubling, no matter what your beliefs are on the death penalty,” said Kelli Masters, an advocate for Jones. “The facts and the circumstances of the conviction are very troubling.”

Masters, an attorney, is one of the leading advocates for Jones — she’s fought to get advocates of all backgrounds on his side and testified at his clemency hearing.

But she realizes that for Stitt to consider anything, they needed to approach the situation differently.

Masters said if Jones’ execution was made to be a partisan issue, Stitt wouldn’t have given it the time of day, which is why she began reaching out to her Republican contacts and asking them to take an objective look at the case.

“If this appeared to be just simply a partisan issue or as some people have said, a liberal or Hollywood type of issue, if that’s the way it was seen, then a lot of people wouldn’t take the time to really dig into it and really learn the facts,” she said. “And I think that’s dangerous to just make assumptions along party lines and not really look at it as human beings and think, what is the moral thing to do? What is the right thing to do?”

Jones’ advocates

On Thursday, five Republican state legislators penned a statement urging Stitt to grant clemency to Jones.

They aren’t anti-death penalty Republicans — they’re death penalty proponents who do not believe Jones should be executed.

One of those Republican legislators, state Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, said the state should absolutely have the death penalty for the most egregious of crimes, but if there is a sliver of doubt, execution should not be an option.

“The worst thing Oklahoma can do is put somebody to death and not be 100% sure,” McDugle said. “I really think we need to have the death penalty if we have a guy that [commits an egregious crime]. We’ve got to have a mechanism and take care of that kind of individual.

“But as far as some of these cases, there should be a very high bar for the death penalty.”

McDugle said he hasn’t looked that deeply into the case, but from what he has read and heard from Masters, he truly believes Jones does not belong on death row.

Earlier this year, the Republican lawmaker penned a letter to Stitt advocating on Jones’ behalf; he said he will continue to fight for Jones to be taken off death row.

“The biggest thing is that, if looking at this case, (Stitt) has any doubt, if (he) does not feel 100% comfortable with sending this guy to death row, then he needs to pull him off death row. What he does with it after that, I don’t know what to recommend,” McDugle said.

Though some see the trial as the final say in a conviction, in Oklahoma, the Pardon and Parole Board has the ultimate say as to whether or not someone receives the death penalty.

Other Republican lawmakers have urged Stitt to listen to the recommendation of the five-member board, three of whom were appointed by the current governor.

“Paul Howell’s murder was a terrible tragedy for his family and this entire community,” Rep. Preston Stinson, R-Edmond, said in a press release. “More than two decades later, however, I have many constituents who still have questions. Our judicial system gives judges and juries the responsibility to determine guilt and sentencing.

“However, the Pardon and Parole Board also plays a role in this system, and in this case they have recommended clemency. For that reason, I am asking Gov. Stitt to take him off of death row and accept the recommendation of his Pardon and Parole Board.”

Jones’ case has also drawn the attention of national Republican organizations, like the American Conservative Union and the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp and Faith and Freedom Coalition executive director Tim Head penned a letter to the governor urging him to accept the Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation and grant clemency for Jones.

“Neither of our organizations have ever publicly opposed capital punishment, nor have we weighed in on a case like Jones’,” the said in the letter. “But we are skeptical of such enormous government power. Governments make mistakes; juries err, too.

“As representatives of staunchly pro-life organizations, we believe that taking an innocent life — whether a baby in its mother’s womb or a wrongly convicted adult — is wrong. As long as that outcome is possible, we believe one must err on the side of life.

“Accordingly, we urge you to commute Julius Jones’ sentence.”

David Safavian, the director of the American Conservative Union’s Nolan Center for Justice, is leading the organization’s advocacy effort for Jones. Head brought Jones’ case to Safavian’s attention, he said, and after looking into it, they came to the agreement that there was enough doubt in Jones’ case that he should not be put to death.

“We’re not explicitly an anti-death penalty organization,” Safavian said. “But if we have concerns at any time, if there is a chance that the person facing execution may be innocent, our view is consistently pro-life, that we have to err on the side of caution, we have to err on the side of life. So that’s why we got involved.”

Safavian said discrepancies in Jones’ case led them to begin advocating on his behalf. From Jones not matching the witness description to his defense attorney not sharing his alibi in court, there are too many issues with the case, he said.

“If we’re going to give the government power to take somebody’s life, the government has to be 100% sure, and knowing what we’ve now learned, that’s just not the case,” he said.

Masters, who reached out to Head and presented him with Jones’ case, said when people — regardless of their background, political beliefs or religion — actually take time to digest and read about the facts in this case, it’s almost impossible for them to see anything different than Jones being innocent.

That is her hope for Stitt’s decision, she said.

The legal team, including Masters, recently met with Stitt to discuss Jones. During the meeting, Stitt asked questions about the case and was genuinely wanting to know more about it, she said. Jones’ team is encouraging him to look at the case objectively, without an agenda, and go into it trying to find the facts.

“So far, every person who has actually taken the time to really look at the case objectively has come to the conclusion that, at the very least, he needs to be taken off death row,” she said.

Update: This article has been updated to change the phrase "change somebody's life" to "take somebody's life" in David Safavian's quote.

Reese Gorman covers politics and COVID-19 for The Transcript; reach him at rgorman@normantranscript.com or @reeseg_3.

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