Still Searching for Justice in Oklahoma

Photograph Source: Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Oklahoma, U.S. – Fair Use

Julius Jones, a man who has been on death row for almost 20 years and has always maintained his innocence, was granted clemency by the Governor of the State of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt.

That’s the good news.

I am happy that the government will not kill another black man today. I am overjoyed that his mother will see him again. I applaud the tireless work of Cece Jones-Davis and others who have had a hand in bringing this to pass.

But this was not a win.

Kevin Stitt did not listen to his Pardon and Parole Board who voted 3-1 to recommend that Jones’ death sentence be commuted to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Instead, he allowed Jones to sit on death row, contemplating his impending doom, and then, when there were only four hours left, announced the decision to commute his sentence to life without the possibility of parole with the following stipulation:

As a condition of granting clemency, Stitt ordered that Jones shall never be eligible to apply for or be considered for a commutation, pardon, or parole for the rest of his life.

I am not given to hyperbole. I am not careless with my words. I will not call the Governor evil or a coward as I have seen many do on social media. But I will say this unequivocally: The United States criminal justice system is evil.

I live in Oklahoma, the state that almost put this man to death. I look outside my window, and I see people rejoicing in the streets. There are tearful hugs being exchanged by students on the campus of Oklahoma State University. A football player who is in one of my classes just emailed to tell me that the athletes cheered as the news of Jones’s commutation came down. This made me happy—that others are full of joy about this news, but I am not happy. This is not a day of rejoicing for me.

Am I wrong to expect that a man who I believe to be innocent should be given the possibility of one day walking out of prison? Is it unreasonable to see this not as a win, but, rather, as side-stepping disaster? I am not happy. I do not feel cheerful. Yes, we did not put an innocent man to death, but the fact that we almost did should give everyone pause.

The fact that Julius Jones is almost certainly innocent has been well documented. The Innocence Project does not take up the case of everyone who applies. They are very, very careful who they put their names behind…and they have been on the side of Jones for years.

Why?

Because there is overwhelming evidence that says Jones should, minimally, not be on death row. But if we are being honest, this man should be given the possibility of parole—but he was not. He was told that he, a man who is most likely innocent, must spend the rest of his life in jail.

No, I am not happy. I do not feel jubilant.

I am tired of black men and women being overly represented in prison populations. I am angered that there is debate about the guilt of Kyle Rittenhouse while we are forced to celebrate the fact that Julius Jones was not killed. Yet his life is still, largely, destroyed. How can I rejoice while Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael, the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, are on trial in Georgia before a mostly all white jury?

Justice was not done today. I wonder if those of us who have been kissed by the sun will ever truly know justice in this country.

Today we did not witness the lynching of a black man by the state of Oklahoma, but a noose is still around his neck.

Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. He can be reached at:  Law.writes@gmail.com.